US President Barack Obama said on Friday he has instructed the intelligence community to undertake 'appropriate reforms' in the wake of disclosures of America's surveillance programs. (Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama said on Friday that he will not seek any significant reforms to the controversial phone and email surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency that scoop up millions of bits of Americans’ data on a daily basis.
While he did say that he is instructing the intelligence community to undertake “appropriate reforms” to how these surveillance activities are carried out, the president stressed that “we have to strike the right balance” between national security and assuring our freedoms.
Speaking at a mid-afternoon press conference at the White House, Obama outlined four specific steps that his administration would take “very shortly” in order to tweak the system.
First, his staff is taking a look at Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the federal government to order any citizen or organization to turn over “any tangible things” that would be used “for an authorized investigation … to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities,” according to the text of the legislation.
The president said Section 215 “does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant” and that “I believe there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence” that the collection of data is receiving proper oversight.
In conjunction with the press conference, the White House released a white paper titled “Bulk Collection of Telephony Metadata Under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.”
Obama also said he is ordering the intelligence communityto “consider some additional changes” to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which critics have likened to a rubber stamp for the surveillance requests that the NSA and other agencies have handed in.
Other initiatives outlined by the president include ordering the intelligence community “to make public as much information about these programs as possible” including ordering the Justice Department “to make public the legal rationale” for searches of data, as well as setting up a privacy office in the NSA that would serve as a hub for further transparency.
Finally, the president promised to form “a group of outside experts to review intelligence collection efforts” that would issue an interim report in 60 days, and a final report by the end of the year that would outline where further reforms could be made.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a longtime critic of government surveillance programs, was quick to issue a statement, writing that “we need to keep our country safe from terrorism, but we should not have to make the false choice between protecting Americans and respecting our constitutional rights.”
He called Obama’s promises for even these largely cosmetic reforms “an important first step” but complained that “the administration must do a better job balancing our national security with our constitutional privacy rights.”
Patrice McDermott, executive director of OpenTheGovernment.org, said the president is taking “important steps toward letting the American public know how the DOJ is interpreting provisions of the PATRIOT Act.
“The most important step, however, will be a vigorous and informed public discussion on how to bring the government’s actions under the PATRIOT Act and the FISA Amendments Act back in line with the Constitution,” McDermott added. “For that, we need to know more.”
The president said “understandably, people would be concerned,” about the programs that were made public by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden when he leaked them to The Guardian and Washington Post newspapers this summer. “I would be, too, if I weren’t inside the government,” Obama said.
He admitted, however, that “it’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs. The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.