By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama announced plans on Friday to limit sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs that have come under criticism since leaks by a former spy agency contractor, saying the United States “can and must be more transparent.”
“Given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives,” Obama told a news conference at the White House.
Saying that it was important to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties, Obama vowed to improve oversight of surveillance and restore public trust in the government’s programs.
“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well,” Obama said, adding that he was confident the programs were not being abused.
The announcement – made just before Obama heads for summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard – may be greeted as a partial victory for supporters of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden who is now in Russia, where he was granted asylum last week.
The Obama administration has vigorously pursued Snowden to bring him back to the United States to face espionage charges for leaking details of the surveillance programs to the media.
“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said at the news conference, brushing off the suggestion that Friday’s announcement showed Snowden had done the right thing in revealing the extent of the government’s program.
The president said he had ordered a review of the surveillance programs before Snowden provided secret documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post, but he added that there was no doubt those leaks triggered a “much more rapid, passionate response” to the issue.
Obama said he had decided on four specific measures.
Firstly, he said, he plans to work with Congress to pursue “appropriate reforms” of Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of so-called “metadata” such as phone records. He insisted that the government had no interest in spying on ordinary Americans.
Obama did not specifically lay out how the program will be reined in, however. Instead, he pledged greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints.
Civil liberties advocates wanted more details.
“He said he would recommend 215 reform, but he said ‘appropriate’ reform and we don’t know what that means,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation digital rights analyst Trevor Timm. “There were no concrete changes to the actual surveillance programs.”
Outlining his second measure, Obama said he would pursue with Congress a reform of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities to target an individual for intelligence gathering.
Obama said he wants to let a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court’s deliberations to ensure an adversarial voice is heard. The secretive court, authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, has been criticized for essentially rubber stamping the U.S. government’s requests to search through Americans’ electronic records.
Currently, the FISA court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but U.S. Justice Department lawyers in its behind-closed-doors proceedings.
Appointing a civil liberties advocate to argue before the surveillance court may have little value, said Carrie Cordero, director of national security studies at Georgetown University Law Center and a former Justice Department lawyer.
“I will be interested to hear how this would work in practice, but as an initial reaction, I do have concerns about additional layers of bureaucracy slowing down the speed and agility of conducting counterterrorism activities,” Cordero said in an email.
Thirdly, Obama said he wants to provide more details about the NSA programs to try to restore any public trust damaged by the Snowden disclosures.
The fourth measure was the creation of a high-level group of outside experts to review the U.S. surveillance effort.
Gigi Sohn, head of public interest group Public Knowledge, said Obama’s plans were a good start, but added: “It’s going to depend a lot on Congress.”
PRIVACY VS NATIONAL SECURITY
The NSA declined to comment on Obama’s proposals. It is not clear if Congress will take up the initiatives. A number of influential lawmakers have vigorously defended the spying programs as critical tools needed to detect terrorist threats.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that her panel will hold a series of hearings to study the surveillance programs.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Republicans expect the White House to ensure that reforms do not compromise programs that protect against terrorism.
Republican Representative Peter King issued a statement stridently defending the surveillance programs and calling Obama’s reform plan “a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility.”
The Patriot Act, launched by then-President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks, was initiated as a terrorism-fighting tool to prevent a similar attack from happening again.
But frequent questions have been raised about the scope of the law and whether its sweeping tactics allows unwarranted intelligence gathering on innocent Americans.
The Snowden disclosures generated concerns about whether people were being forced to sacrifice their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the open-ended search for terrorism links. The NSA has long monitored communications abroad but the documents released by Snowden indicated the email and phone data of Americans is being routinely monitored on a vast scale, with the cooperation of major U.S. technology firms.
Obama met with the CEOs of technology and telecoms companies such Apple Inc and AT&T Inc on Thursday to discuss government surveillance. A Google Inc computer scientist and transparency advocates also participated.
The search for Snowden has upset U.S. relations with some Latin American countries, China and, above all, Russia. Obama this week canceled a planned summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin.
Obama said the United States has always had tension with Russia and it was an appropriate juncture to reassess where the two nations stand.
(Additional reporting by David Ingram, Joseph Menn, and Alina Selyukh; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Claudia Parsons)
Watch video from the press conference, posted by Agence France-Presse on Friday, below.