January 17, 2014

Obama Calls For End To NSA Holding On To Call Data

Saying that "critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives," President Obama said Friday that he wants the National Security Agency to stop holding on to massive amounts of "metadata" about the phone calls and electronic communications of millions around the world.

Obama said he's ordered that a plan be drafted to shift that data to some other entity. The information could then only be "queried ... after a judicial finding, or in a true emergency." He's also ordered, the president said, that the NSA narrow the scope of its activities. "We will only pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three," Obama said.

Speaking of the months of controversy about the NSA that were sparked by leaks from former agency contractor Edward Snowden, Obama said of the United States that "we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity."

"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he added.

Our original post and additions we made before 11:40 a.m. ET pick up the story:

"In our rush to respond to very real and novel threats," after the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks, "the risks of government overreach — the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security — became more pronounced," President Obama said Friday.

Obama put a post-Sept. 11 frame around his highly anticipated announcement about the changes he believes need to be made in the way the National Security Agency collects information about millions of people around the world.

Among the changes Obama said he wants to be made: "The establishment of a panel of advocates from outside government to provide an independent voice in significant cases before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court." The president said he will call on Congress to create that panel.

While outlying such changes, he also sought to make the case for the work that the NSA and other intelligence agencies do. "In an extraordinarily difficult job, one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic, the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people," the president said.

He also made the case for the collection of massive amounts of digital data. "We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber-threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications — whether it's to unravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts," Obama said.

Speaking of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose leaks about the agency's activities sparked an uproar that has led to demands for changes in NSA's operations, Obama said:

"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations. I will say that our nation's defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation's secrets. If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

From our original post:

Our earlier post, "Obama Expected To Say NSA Should Not Hold 'Metadata'," previewed his remarks.

We'll be updating during Obama's address. We're also embedding the White House's livestream for those who wish to watch.

For more background and context, see these earlier posts:

Five Changes To The NSA You Might Hear In Obama's Speech

Obama's NSA Speech: Just What Eisenhower Warned About?

Barack Obama
(Getty Images)
December 26, 2013

President Obama Signs Budget, Defense Bills

President Obama on Thursday signed the bipartisan budget bill agreed upon earlier this month, setting the stage for an easing of mandatory spending cuts over the next two years.

The Senate approved the spending measure last week, following its passage in the Republican-dominated House.

The president also signed the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014.

As The Associated Press reports:

"Obama signed the bill Thursday while vacationing in Hawaii. The deal reduces across-the-board cuts already scheduled to take effect, restoring about $63 billion over two years. It includes a projected $85 billion in other savings.

"It's not the grand bargain that Obama and congressional Republicans once had wanted, but it ends the cycle of fiscal brinkmanship for now, by preventing another government shutdown for nearly two years.

"The bill signing marks one of Obama's last official acts in a year beset by the partial government shutdown, a near-default by the Treasury, a calamitous health care rollout and near-perpetual congressional gridlock."

Reuters says the president also authorized "appropriations for Department of Defense programs and related spending at other agencies. The act sets out a Pentagon base budget of $526.8 billion in the 2014 fiscal year."

But, as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the defense authorization does not go as far as the president wants in closing Guantanamo Bay.

As he has in past years, Obama attached a signing statement complaining of "unwarranted and burdensome restrictions" on transferring detainees out of the prison.

Although the law eases those restrictions a bit, making it easier to transfer detainees to foreign countries, Congress still won't let the White House move detainees to U.S. soil, making it nearly impossible to close the prison, Shapiro reports.

Obama says the restrictions "unwise" and insists that "the executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees."

December 19, 2013

Obama Commutes Rockford Man's Life Sentence

President Barack Obama has commuted the life sentence of a northern Illinois man sentenced 20 years ago for distributing crack and cocaine.

Under Thursday's order, the sentence of Reynolds Wintersmith Jr. will now expire on April 17. In a prominent 1998 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld sentences given to Wintersmith and four other Illinois men convicted in a drug-selling conspiracy in Rockford.

Molly Gill of the organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums said there are thousands of prisoners like Wintersmith.

“The president said that he can only do so much. He can commute the sentences for someone like Reynolds Wintersmith, so that that young man doesn’t die in prison," Gill said. "But he can’t change the laws that put Reynolds Wintersmith in prison for life. Only Congress can do that.”

Wintersmith’s conviction was his first offense, but the sentence was increased under the mandatory minimum sentencing formula. That is because there was also a gang member and a large amount of cocaine involved in the conspiracy.

President Obama walks into an auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building Monday for a speech about World AIDS Day.
(Carolyn Kaster/AP)
December 02, 2013

Obama Launches HIV Cure Initiative, Ups Pledge For Global Health

Commemorating the 25th World AIDS Day a day late, President Obama announced an initiative Monday to find a cure for HIV infections that would be funded by $100 million shifted from existing spending.

"The United States should be at the forefront of new discoveries into how to put people into long-term remission without requiring lifelong therapies — or better yet, eliminate it completely," Obama said at a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

The initiative reflects a growing optimism among scientists that it may be possible to get patients' immune systems to control HIV without drugs, or even to eliminate the virus from their systems. A feat like that seemed impossible not so long ago. The moneywill come from expiring AIDS research grants over the next three years, the administration said in a statement.

The president also pledged $5 billion over the next three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria if other countries contribute twice that amount. The Global Fund is holding its fourth replenishment meeting this week in Washington, with a goal of topping the $9.3 billion pledged three years ago.

And he signed legislation enacted last month to extend the 10-year-old President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, started by President Bush.

Obama boasted that PEPFAR has exceeded the goal — thought to be ambitious when he set it on World AIDS Day two years ago – of getting anti-HIV treatment to 6 million people in developing countries. "Today I'm proud to announce that we've not only reached our goal, we've exceeded our treatment goal," he said. "We've helped 6.7 million people receive life-saving treatment, and we're going to keep at it."

Obama also noted that the waiting list for treatment under the federal-state AIDS Drug Assistance Program last week fell to zero, from a peak of 9,310 in the fall of 2011.

Apart from that domestic bright spot, however, a report card on how America is doing with its own HIV epidemic reveals only slow progress.

In a panel discussion following Obama's remarks, Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University pointed out that when PEPFAR and the Global Fund began, AIDS experts were betting it would be easier to combat HIV in targeted populations in America than to get millions of HIV-infected people in sub-Saharan Africa into treatment.

But the opposite has happened. "African-American men are about half as likely" to have their HIV infection under control as non-Hispanic white men, Beyrer says. "And two-thirds of new infections are among men who have sex with men."

The White House report is thin on promising results, as one section puts it, and heavy on challenges.

For instance, a 2010 National AIDS Strategy set a goal of reducing new HIV infections in this country by 25 percent. But the incidence "remains unacceptably high," the latest report says. And, in fact, new HIV infections increased 12 percent among men who have sex with men in the most recent figures – 22 percent among the youngest males, from 13 to 24 years old.

The strategy aimed to increase the percent of HIV-infected who know their status to 90 percent. But the most recent figures indicate undiagnosed HIV decreased by only 9 percent between 2006 and 2010. And fewer than half of those between ages 13 and 24 years are aware of their infection.

When it comes to effective anti-HIV treatment, fewer than half of Americans at highest risk – men who have sex with men, blacks and Latinos – get sufficient antivirals drugs to keep their HIV under control.

Still, there's evidence that concerted efforts to combat HIV can pay off in the most heavily affected places. The report cites impressive gains in New York City, the District of Columbia and San Francisco.

"All three have made care and treatment very available, have ramped up testing and needle exchanges," says Chris Collins, policy director of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. "When you do that, you see infection rates fall."

For instance, when Washington, D.C., increased publicly funded HIV testing from 400 tests in 2007 to 120,000 in 2011, newly diagnosed cases went down by almost half. Newly diagnosed cases have also fallen by half in New York City and San Francisco.

The proportion of HIV-treated people whose virus was suppressed has gone steadily up in New York City, especially after the health department recommended that all newly diagnosed patients should be offered anti-retroviral treatment. By the end of last year, nearly 8 in 10 were virally suppressed.

November 27, 2013

Small-Business Access To Online Health Exchanges Delayed Again

The Obama administration is delaying yet again online signup for small businesses through the Affordable Care Act.

The program was intended to make it easier for small employers to provide health insurance to their workers on a more equal footing with big business.

Employers with 50 or fewer workers were supposed to be able to participate in something called the SHOP marketplace, for Small Business Health Options. The marketplace offers plans that meet the health law's standards and would let some businesses qualify for tax credits.

But the online part of the SHOP exchange has not yet been available, at least in the 36 states where the federal government is running the program. And now, says the government, it won't be working until November 2014.

It's the second major delay for the SHOP program. In April, the administration delayed the ability of workers in small businesses to choose from among more than one plan.

In a conference call with reporters, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services spokeswoman Julie Bataille was frank in saying that getting the SHOP program online was less important than getting the HealthCare.gov website working for individuals.

"It was important for us to prioritize the functionality that would enable consumers and individuals to shop and enroll online in coverage," she said. "Those are the things we put in place Oct. 1 that we have continued to make sure we work on to improve the capacity and functionality to do that work, and it was important for us to continue doing that."

Instead, for now, small businesses that want to enroll in SHOP plans must go directly to an insurer, or to an insurance agent or broker, and fill out a paper application. Next year, when online enrollment is up and running, both employers and their employees should be able to enroll in a full array of plans through HealthCare.gov.

Small-business groups reacted with disappointment, flavored by politics.

"While we're disappointed that the ability to enroll online on the HealthCare.gov website has been pushed back for small employers, starting in December HealthCare.gov will offer small businesses a better comparison shopping experience," said a statement from the small-business group the Main Street Alliance. "Most importantly, today's announcement allowing direct enrollment ensures that small businesses will be able to access the benefits of the Affordable Care Act in 2014, including expanded health care tax credits."

The more politically conservative National Federation of Independent Business was less charitable, calling the announcement "a disappointment but not a surprise. Small businesses continue to be low on the priority list during the Obamacare implementation process," the statement continues. "It probably matters little to people in Washington that the failure to get the small business exchanges online adds yet another onerous paperwork requirement for job creators."

Barack Obama
November 14, 2013

Obama Moves To Delay Cancellations Of Insurance Plans

President Obama announced Thursday that Americans who have had their health insurance plans canceled because of his Affordable Care Act can keep those plans for another year.

Those cancellations — most effective on Jan. 1 — have sparked intense criticism of the ACA, in part because the president pledged many times that if Americans liked the health plans they had, they wouldn't have to give them up under the terms of his program.

Obama also said that problems with the HealthCare.gov website and with the cancellations of some American's health insurance policies are "on me."

Several times in remarks at a White House news conference, the president turned to football analogies. "We fumbled the rollout on this health care law," he said at one point.

We updated this post as he spoke.

Update at 12:55 p.m. ET. "We're Going To Get This Done":

As we suspected, the president was winding up his remarks. He finishes by saying of the fixes he wants made to the ACA that "we're going to get this done."

Update at 12:52 p.m. ET. "I Am Not A Perfect Man":

He remembers saying when he first ran for president that "I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president," Obama says as he continues to talk about the ACA's problems. But he also said back then, Obama adds, that he would "wake up every day" and work as hard as he can.

Those are pledges he hasn't broken, says the president: He's not perfect and he believes he continues to "work as hard as I can to make things better for folks."

It sounds as if he's winding up the news conference.

Update at 12:47 p.m. ET. "Two Fumbles On A Big Game":

Yet another football reference.

His team has had "two fumbles on a big game, but the game's not over," Obama says — referring to the troubled website and the cancellation of some Americans' insurance plans.

Update at 12:45 p.m. ET. Another Football Reference:

Doing some "Monday morning quarterbacking," Obama says that "two years ago, as we were thinking about this, we might have done more to be sure we were breaking the mold on setting this up."

Update at 12:40 p.m. ET. Majority Of People Will Find The Website Working By Nov. 30, But No Guarantee of Perfection:

Will the HealthCare.gov website be fixed by Nov. 30 as his aides have promised? Obama says that by then "the majority of people that go to the website will see a website that's working the way it's supposed to." But, he adds, "it's not possible for me to guarantee that 100 percent of the people, 100 percent of the time, will have a perfectly seamless, smooth experience."

Update at 12:25 p.m. ET. He Didn't Expect Cancellations:

Obama has come under sharp criticism for saying many times that Americans could keep their health insurance policies if they liked them, only to watch as many received cancellation notices. as the ACA went into effect. He says his expectation was that "98 percent" of policyholders would see no change or find they could get plans with better options, and that others would see their plans covered by the "grandfather clause" that was designed to keep them in place.

It's "on me" that many plans were cancelled, Obama says.

Update at 12:20 p.m. ET. He's Not "Stupid Enough" To Say It Would Work If He Knew It Wouldn't:

Reminded that he said many times before it launched that it would be easy to buy health care insurance on the new HealthCare.gov website, the president says "I was not informed" that there were concerns about whether the website was ready for its Oct. 1 launch.

"I don't think I'm stupid enough to say 'this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity' a week before [the launch] ... if I thought it wasn't going to work," Obama says.

Update at 12:15 p.m. ET. "We fumbled."

"We fumbled the rollout on this health care law," Obama says.

As for his falling approval rating, the president says that "we just came out of a shutdown ... and the next thing [Americans] know is that the president's health care reform can't get the website to work. ... I understand why people are frustrated."

Update at 12:12 p.m. ET. Extending Plans:

He's announcing, Obama says, that "insurers can extend plans that otherwise would be canceled" because they don't meet the new law's basic requirements. Those extensions would go through 2014. The administration is also asking, he says, that those insurers tell policyholders "what protections those new plans don't include" and that the new health insurance exchanges may offer "new options with better coverage and tax credits."

Update at 12:08 p.m. ET. "Problem No. 1":

The president concedes that "problem No. 1" is making sure the HealthCare.gov website "works like it's supposed to."

Update at 12:03 p.m. ET. The President Begins:

Obama is at the microphone. He says he will be taking a few questions at the end of his remarks. First, though, he offers his condolences to the people of the Philippines, where Typhoon Haiyan hit one week ago. He urges Americans to go to WhiteHouse.gov/typhoon to find organization that are assisting people in the Philippines.

Update at 11:50 a.m. ET. Running Late:

As we cautioned, these events often start late. The president hasn't yet come to the microphone at the White House briefing room.

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. Back On For 11:35 A.M.:

The White House tells NPR that an official's earlier comment that the president would start speaking at 11:45 a.m. ET was a slip. The announcement is still set for 11:35 a.m. ET., the White House says.

That said, the president is often several minutes late at such events. So stay tuned.

Update at 11 a.m. ET. Will Allow Insurers To Renew Current Policies:

NPR is now reporting that sources with knowledge of the announcement say the president "is set to allow insurance companies to renew current private health care policies for one year even if they do not comply with the minimum coverages required by the Affordable Care Act."

In other words, insurers who have notified some policyholders that their plans have been canceled will be told they can contact those policyholders to offer them the old coverage again.

Update at 10:45 a.m. ET. Time Change:

Earlier the White House said Obama would speak at 11:35 a.m. ET. Now, officials say, he's expected to start at 11:45 a.m. ET.

President Obama waves as he departs Love Field Airport after shaking hands with supporters Wednesday in Dallas.
(Tony Gutierrez/AP)
November 07, 2013

With Three Years Left To Go, Obama Remains On Defense

Just a year after he won re-election, President Obama's second term is already feeling long and fairly fruitless.

It could get worse.

It's typical for second-term presidents to enter the doldrums, but in Obama's case the feeling that he can't accomplish very much set in early. The hopes he stated last year that his re-election would "break the fever" of unyielding Republican opposition to everything he proposed turned out to be misguided.

"The president is clearly at his weakest point in his presidency so far," says GOP consultant Whit Ayres.

House Republicans consider everything Obama proposes to be dead on arrival. The major legislation that he pushed through while Democrats still controlled Congress early in his term — the Affordable Care Act — remains contentious.

The fact that its rollout has been politically disastrous thus far has put the president on the defensive. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed Obama's approval rating at a low ebb of 39 percent. Other polls have also registered slippage.

Obama and other Democrats can blame Republicans all they want for being intransigent — and they will. But the fact that the two parties are in an unceasing mode of castigating each other doesn't bode well for any future deal-making.

"As long as Republicans control the House and see some prospect they can control the Senate next year, they're not going to do a thing to cooperate with this president," says William Schneider, a senior fellow at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

Honeymoon Got Canceled

Soon after winning re-election, Obama achieved one of his goals — a tax package enacted at the start of the year that had the effect of raising income tax rates for top earners.

But that package only delayed by two months the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. Obama has been unable to replace those cuts or reach any kind of broader budget agreement with Republicans that would end what he has described as a cycle of lurching from crisis to crisis.

Last month's deal that ended the partial government shutdown called for a joint House-Senate committee to address larger fiscal concerns. The committee met once publicly, then adjourned for a month.

On other issues, Obama has failed to get traction. The Senate-passed immigration bill — a major second-term priority for the president — appears to have no life in the House.

Obama and his agenda are "vastly more popular" than the GOP, says Democratic consultant Jim Jordan.

"But we can count on the Republican Party to continue to obstruct policy that the public roundly supports," Jordan says. "The president's legislative prospects aren't particularly bright, as I think the White House will concede."

The Problem Of Obamacare

Republicans look at Tuesday's election results and see no evidence they suddenly need to embrace the president. Instead, they look at the most important Democratic victory, in the Virginia gubernatorial race, and see hope for their side.

It ended up being a closer race than predicted. But more than that, exit polls indicated that voters blamed both parties equally for the shutdown (OK, 3 percent more blamed the GOP), while a majority disliked Obamacare.

"This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," defeated GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday. "That message will go out across America tonight."

There was instant debate about the validity of that argument. But while the health care law may or may not ultimately prove a great boon for the country, in political terms there could be more pain to come for Obama and his party.

Obama's broken promise about people being able to keep insurance plans they liked has so far applied only to the relatively small market of people who buy coverage as individuals. If Americans who are covered through employer-backed plans see cost increases or other changes, Republicans will be sure to blame the law that bears the president's name.

"For Republicans, it's like the anti-war movement was for Democrats in 2006 — it's what they live for, fighting Obamacare," Schneider says. "They'll stop at nothing, including shutting down the government."

Polarization Continues

For a two-term president, Obama is "weirdly nonpopular," says Henry Olsen, a political analyst at the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center.

Despite an economy that's remained middling at best throughout his time in office, Obama retains a firm base of support. But, in an era of strident polarization, he hasn't been able to win over sustained support from solid majorities in polls.

"The thing to remember is that the core of each political party thinks that the other one is inherently illegitimate," Olsen says. "Both sides prefer stasis to action at this point, because both sides believe they will win the longer the battle is prolonged."

That means Obama — the most prominent politician in America who will never seek office again — remains in an ongoing campaign mode, trying to sell ideas that his opponents will never accept.

"Very little is now possible that wasn't possible before," says Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College. "He looks like a very typical second-term president — not so popular, the agenda's stuck, a little bit of scandal is starting to creep out and he's hunkering down to ride out the rest of his term."

October 28, 2013

Obama Twitter Account Hacked

A nonprofit political advocacy group which emanated from President Barack Obama's re-election campaign says hackers altered the links contained in tweets sent under his name.

An official with Organizing for Action said that someone hacked the link shortener used by the account. The official said the Twitter account itself had not been compromised.  Though the account is listed under Obama's name, the president himself rarely sends messages.

A group called the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for the action. The group aligns itself with Syrian President Bashar Assad and has taken credit for hacking into social media sites in the past. The group said, "Obama doesn't have any ethical issues with spying on the world, so we took it upon ourselves to return the favor.''

Angela Merkel
(Markus Schreiber/AP)
October 23, 2013

White House: US Not Monitoring German Chancellor's Calls

The White House says President Barack Obama has assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. isn't listening in on her phone calls.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama and Merkel spoke by phone on Wednesday. Germany says Merkel initiated the call after receiving information that U.S. intelligence may have targeted her mobile phone.

Merkel's spokesman said the chancellor told Obama that if true, it would be unacceptable. But Carney said, "The United States is not monitoring and will not monitor the communications of the chancellor.''

Carney said the U.S. is examining Germany's concerns as part of an ongoing review of how the U.S. gathers intelligence. The White House has cited that review in responding to similar spying concerns from France and other U.S. allies.

Barack Obama
(Evan Vucci/AP)
October 21, 2013

Obama: Health Care Site Is Troubled; Affordable Care Act Is Not

The website that's meant to allow Americans to shop and sign up for new medical plans under the Affordable Care Act isn't working as well as it should, President Obama says. But he promised that the problems will be fixed — and he said the Affordable Care Act is bringing many benefits that aren't tied to those problems.

"Nobody is madder than me that the website isn't working as it should — which means that it's going to get fixed," Obama told a crowd at an outdoor address at the White House.

Since it went into effect at the start of October, the new system's HealthCare.gov website has been the subject of numerous complaints, as many users reported problems creating an account or logging in. Others say they got confusing error messages.

Acknowledging the problems Monday, the president said, "There's no sugarcoating it: The website has been too slow" and people have had trouble navigating it.

The problems were "aggravated" by the high level of traffic to the website, Obama said.

The HealthCare.gov website has attracted more than 19 million unique visits, the Department of Health and Human Services reported Sunday. But the agency acknowledged that the online experience has been "frustrating." An early attempt to address the online system's problems backfired, when "a virtual 'waiting room' " caused more confusion, HHS said.

The president spoke in the Rose Garden at the White House in an address that began around 11:30 a.m. ET. He was introduced by small-business owner Janice Baker, the first person to enroll in the new health program in the state of Delaware. Baker said she is saving money on the new plan.

Reading letters aloud with similar stories, the president said the problems aren't with the Affordable Care Act but with the website — and that those issues are being addressed. And he said the health care overhaul has already begun helping Americans, such as senior citizens who Obama says are now saving money on their prescriptions.

"You may not have noticed them, but you've got them," the president said of such benefits. And, he said, "they're not connected to a website."

The president also stressed that the signup process has just begun for the coverage plans, which are set to take effect in January. And he said his administration has added more staff to call centers to help people who have questions or problems using the system.

"We've got people working overtime, 24-7," he said.

Obama recited the phone number — twice — for those call centers: 1-800-318-2596.

"You can talk to someone directly, and they can walk you through the application process," he said.

A prominent link to that and other phone numbers was added to HealthCare.gov over the weekend.

The Department of Health and Human Services says it is "defining new test processes to prevent new issues from cropping up as we improve the overall service and deploying fixes to the site during off-peak hours on a regular basis."

If you're curious about the plans, you could also use NPR's Obamacare cost calculator, which we published last month.

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