Obama: ‘We Can And Must Be More Transparent’
by Eyder Peralta
In the shadow of classified leaks exposing some of the government's most secret surveillance programs, President Obama said he will work with Congress to reform laws.
Speaking at a press conference in the East Room of the White House on Friday, Obama defended the programs but said the reforms will bring greater oversight and transparency to them.
"America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," Obama said. "Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies. It's true we have significant capabilities. What's also true is we show a restraint ... that some governments around the world refuse to show."
Obama said that the leaks have made these programs public in a sensational manner, but he is comfortable that the programs are not being abused. However, in light of the leaks, he thinks it's appropriate to "lay out what exactly we're doing."
So the president has proposed a review of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which gives the government authority to collect telephone metadata, and he proposed changes to the secret court that oversees the programs. Obama also said he had directed his administration to make public the legal reasoning (pdf) behind the bulk collection of data and ordered the creation of a task force that will issue a report in six months.
Obama was asked about Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who is leaking the classified documents. Obama admitted that the current debate was spurred by his revelations, but he rejected the notion that he was a whistleblower.
"I don't think Mr. Snowden is a patriot," Obama said, adding that Snowden had legal means to bring his concerns to light. Not only that, Obama added, but even without the leaks, the U.S. government would have made the reforms Obama is now proposing, except they would have done so without sacrificing national security.
Obama took questions for about an hour on a wide range of issues. Among the other highlights:
— On the strained U.S.-Russian relations, Obama said the Snowden situation was only "one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen in the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues... [It's] appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going... and calibrate our relationship [to ensure] we are doing things that are good for the U.S. and hopefully good for Russia."
— On Benghazi, Obama said, "We're going to do everything we can to get those who carried out those attacks."
— On immigration, Obama said he believes the Senate bill could pass the House.
We are live blogged the press conference, so keep reading if you want the play-by-play:
Update at 3:59 p.m. ET. On Immigration:
President Obama said that he doesn't know another issue that has such "broad consensus."
He said that he is urging the U.S. House to either pick up the Senate bill or propose their own bill when they get back from recess.
"I'm absolutely confident that if [the Senate] bill comes to the floor of the House it would pass," Obama said. "The problem is internal Republican caucus politics... and that's what the American people don't want us to be worrying about."
Update at 3:54 p.m. ET. Government Shutdown:
On the potential that the GOP could shut down the government, Obama said:
"I'm assuming that they will not take that path. I have confidence that common sense, in the end, will prevail."
Update at 3:45 p.m. ET. On Benghazi:
President Obama, a reporter said, promised to bring those who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi to justice. But 11 months later, there has been no justice.
"I also said that we'd get Bin Laden and we didn't get him in 11 months," Obama said. "We're going to do everything we can to get those who carried out those attacks."
Obama also confirmed news reports that charges against suspects had been filed under seal.
Update at 3:38 p.m. ET. Only Interested In Preventing Attacks:
Obama said his administration and the NSA is only interested in preventing another terror attack.
"We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that," Obama said.
He said that he has not wavered in his position, that when he came into office he came in with skepticism about the programs, but what he found after he had them evaluated was that they offered "valuable intelligence that help us protect the American people."
He said he is comfortable that the capabilities of the programs are not being abused, but in light of leaks, he thinks it's appropriate to "lay out what exactly we're doing."
Update at 3:27 p.m. ET. Snowden Not A Patriot:
"I don't think Mr. Snowden is a patriot," Obama said about the "NSA leaker."
Obama said he had already ordered a review of the surveillance programs before the leaks began.
"I never made claims that all this surveillance technologies somehow didn't require some additional reforms," Obama said. "That's exactly what I called for."
Obama said that if Snowden's conscience was stirred by something he thought he legal, there were legal avenues available to him.
"There's no doubt that Snowden's leak triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if i appointed a review board," Obama said.
But he believes that an orderly review would have gotten to the same place, except it would have done so "without putting at risk our national security."
Update at 3:21 p.m. ET. Don't Boycott Olympics:
Obama said he did not think it would be productive to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Update at 3:18 p.m. ET. Emerging Differences With Russia:
On the relationship with Russia, which has been frayed because the country granted temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Obama said:
"I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards with mixed success," Obama said. The Snowden situation, Obama said, is "one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen in the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues... [It's] appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going... and calibrate our relationship [to ensure] we are doing things that are good for the U.S. and hopefully good for Russia."
Obama said his decision to pull out of bilateral talks with Putin was not solely based on their decision on Snowden.
Update at 3:15 p.m. ET. Not Spying On Regular People:
Obama said America's spying is aimed at uncovering threats.
"America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," Obama said.
"It's true we have significant capabilities," he said. "What's also true is we show a restraint ... that some governments around the world refuse to show," Obama said.
Update at 3:09 p.m. ET. 'Right To Ask Questions':
"It's right to ask questions about surveillance," Obama said to open his press conference.
He said that while he always intended to have this debate in an "orderly and lawful" way, "repeated leaks have initiated the debate in a passionate" but not informed way.
However he said, "We can and must be more transparent," because it's not enough that he trusts the checks and balances in place.
Obama said he was announcing reforms to Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act and to the secret court that issues opinions on the issues.
Obama added that he was directing the Justice Department to make public the legal rational for the bulk collection of Americans' electronic data.
Update at 3:03 p.m. ET. Announcing Reforms:
Briefing reporters before the president's press conference, a senior administration official said Obama acknowledges that given the scale of the government surveillance programs, Americans have "understandable concerns."
That said, the official said, Obama will work with Congress to "pursue appropriate reforms to Section 215," of the Patriot Act, which is the section that allows the government to collect bulk metadata about Americans' phone calls.
The reforms, which include a new website, the official said, will provide the programs with "greater oversight and transparency."
The official also said that President Obama will announce new measures to "improve public trust" in the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The official said the president was intent on setting up an "adversarial" system, in which the government can present its case to the court and another party could counter that argument with concerns about civil liberties.
Finally, the president will announce the formation of a "high level group of experts" who will issue a preliminary report in 60 days on how to balance "security, privacy and foreign police concerns."
Update at 3:01 p.m. ET. The List Is Long:
As we wait for the president, we'll list off the kinds of topics we could hear about during the press conference: "NSA leaker" Edward Snowden, Egypt, Russia, Yemen, immigration and the terror concerns that led to the closing of U.S. diplomatic missions across the Muslim world.
Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. Obama's Earlier Statement:
It's worth noting that Obama addressed the NSA surveillance programs on Jay Leno earlier this week.
"We don't have a domestic spying program," Obama said. "What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack. ... That information is useful."
Update at 2:16 p.m. ET. Surveillance Reform:
The leaks of classified information by Edward Snowden have forced the Obama administration to focus their attention on NSA surveillance.
The Wall Street Journal reports Obama will announce measures that "increase transparency and restore public trust" in the programs.
All of this comes after two new reports on a program that designed to collect electronic information from foreigners may in fact also collect information from Americans.
Mark reported about The New York Times report that found the NSA "is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans' e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance."
And Scott just told us about the latest revelation from The Guardian that "elaborates on the email surveillance, saying a 'glossary document' issued to operatives in the NSA's Special Operations division, which runs the Prism program, authorizes searches of email and text of 'both American citizens and foreigners located in the U.S.'"