President Barack Obama said his administration is taking steps to assure privacy rights are protected while government surveillance programs scour telephone records and Internet communications for links that might foil a terrorist attack.
“It’s not enough for me as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said at a White House news conference yesterday. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
Obama and the U.S. intelligence agencies are seeking to quell growing public and congressional criticism of the programs that snare data on communications by U.S. citizens.
“We have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms,” he said.
The president said he will ask Congress change the section of the Patriot Act authorizing the collection of telephone records, to increase oversight and transparency. He said he’ll also propose appointment of a legal advocate to serve as an adversary when spy agencies make requests in the secret sessions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which vets requests for electronic eavesdropping.
As part of Obama’s effort to reassure the public, the Justice Department and the NSA released documents yesterday detailing the legal rationale for surveillance and describing controls and accountability in the programs.
“America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” Obama, 52, said.
The Justice Department released a 23-page white paper as Obama spoke that provided the broad legal analysis for the U.S. program that authorizes the NSA to collect the phone records of millions of American citizens. The NSA at the same time distributed a seven-page document describing the agency’s mission and authority.
The Justice Department paper lays out the program and its safeguards, including oversight by Congress and the secretive court, as well as the argument that it isn’t unconstitutional. While the paper doesn’t include the classified legal order authorizing the program, it cites legislative history, lawmakers’ statements and dozens of court rulings.
The president’s pledges follow Americans’ expressions of unease with the surveillance activities. In a survey released July 26 by the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans said the courts don’t set adequate limits on the information collected, and 70 percent of Americans said they believe the government is using the data for purposes beyond anti-terrorism.
Even with those objections, 50 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the programs while 44 percent disapproved.
The concerns of the public “did make it necessary for the administration to have some kind of response,” said Scott Keeter, Pew’s director of survey research.
Whether Obama’s response goes far enough may depend on how lawmakers and other leaders react, he said. “It’s from that the public will be able to say, ’That sounds satisfactory to me,’ or ’I don’t think so.’”
The debate was ignited after revelations about two NSA programs by former computer security contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged by federal officials with illegally leaking classified documents. Snowden, 30, is in Russia, which has granted the former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. employee temporary asylum.
“The recognition by the administration that these programs have problems that need to be reformed is a positive step,” said Amie Stepanovich, director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
“However, it’s necessary that any reform that takes place is meaningful and includes provisions for ongoing transparency and accountability in regard to the NSA’s exercise of its surveillance authorities.”
Stepanovich said she’s not encouraged by the pace of his steps to date.
As part of the process, Obama met Aug. 8 with a group that included Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson. His top aides met earlier in the week with industry representatives and privacy advocates.
The NSA has been collecting millions of phone records from American citizens and monitoring cross-border Internet traffic. Government officials say the surveillance is authorized by a secret court under the Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and is necessary to defend against future terrorist strikes.
The government last week cited intercepted communications among terrorist groups in announcing that almost two-dozen U.S. diplomatic posts in some predominantly Muslim countries would be temporarily shut down because of the threat of attack. The State Department said yesterday 18 embassies and consulates will reopen on Aug. 11.
Lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns about the legal rationale for the data collection. They have zeroed in on the program that gathers millions of phone records from U.S. citizens into government computers, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the Patriot Act. The court, which operates in secret, has come under scrutiny for being too willing to approve intelligence-agency requests.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, has proposed legislation to establish the position of an advocate at the secretive court in Washington that issues orders and rulings related to classified national intelligence information.
“What we have learned over the course of American history is that the Constitution needs a zealous advocate,” Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Aug. 8 during remarks at Harvard Law School.
Blumenthal is one of several lawmakers who have proposed, or are in the process of drafting, legislation to place restrictions or new public disclosure requirements on the classified U.S. intelligence apparatus that has become central to the federal government’s national-security programs.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her panel will undertake a “major review” of data-collection programs.
A House proposal to take away funding for the NSA programs -- which was vigorously opposed by the Obama administration -- came seven votes short of passing July 24.
The surveillance efforts also have defenders in Congress.
Representative Peter King, the New York Republican who’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, called Obama’s willingness to change the surveillance program “a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership.”
In a statement, King said “these programs are legal, transparent and contain the appropriate checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government.”
“Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. “That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it.”