President Barack Obama unveiled a series of proposals Friday that could curtail the federal government’s ability to spy on Americans, in light of eroding confidence by the public after recent leaks about the massive surveillance programs.
Obama announced at a news conference that in an effort to provide greater oversight and transparency, he’ll urge changes to the USA Patriot Act, which bolstered law enforcement’s ability to gather intelligence in the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and to the secret court that approves government surveillance programs.
“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said in the White House’s ornate East Room. “The American people need to have confidence in them, as well.”
The president spoke in generalities, failing to outline many specific changes, saying simply that he’ll need to convince a divided – and often dysfunctional – Congress to make the most significant modifications.
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers from both parties have supported the surveillance programs for years, while others said they were never informed of the extent of the data collection and want changes.
Obama’s decision marks a stunning turnaround for a president who’s repeatedly downplayed the scope of the programs since newspapers revealed in early June that the National Security Agency is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers, as well as emails through nine companies, including tech giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook. He dismissed the uproar over the programs revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden as “hype.”
Obama said he was trying to strike a balance between protecting Americans and providing the appropriate oversight to guard against abuse.
“I want to make clear, once again, that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” he 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.”
Obama has spent weeks meeting with people behind closed doors as he developed his proposal. This week, he held sessions with technology industry lobbyists, civil liberties advocates and the CEOs of major technology companies, including Apple and AT&T.
The president said that his administration, which already has taken the unprecedented step of disclosing a number of documents related to the surveillance programs, would declassify a series of others about the NSA’s purpose and the government’s rationale for conducting surveillance.
He also will appoint a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, create a website to release documents and appoint a task force of outside experts to review the programs. The task force will provide recommendations to Obama in 60 days and then again at the end of the year.
"While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient," said Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Lawmakers from both parties have proposed legislation in recent weeks that would limit the scope of data collections, require an adversarial point of view when the government requests information at the secret court and add more public disclosures by the NSA.
Obama backs some of those changes, including having an adversary in the court, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Support on Capitol Hill for issues related to the NSA scandal hasn’t fallen strictly along party lines, where so many other politically controversial issues break down.
One congressional proposal would have severely limited the scope of the information that could be collected, and directly tied the NSA’s compliance to its receipt of federal dollars. The measure fell short by only 12 votes, a narrower margin than expected.
Some Republican lawmakers said Friday that Obama was slow to come to the same conclusion they already had. But others faulted him for failing to explain such important programs to the American people, leading to confusion.
Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who leads the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterintelligence and Terrorism, said Obama’s decision to push for changes was “a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility” because the programs are legal and transparent.
In the Senate, the chairwoman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, said her panel would step up public oversight with hearings this fall on U.S. data-collection programs.
"If changes are necessary, whenever possible we will make them," Feinstein said
Obama initially had been skeptical about surveillance programs as a presidential candidate. As a senator, he supported changes to the Patriot Act that would have required the government to convince a judge that the records it was seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy.
He said he’d changed his mind after his staff evaluated the programs and expanded some of the safeguards. As president, he signed off on them, continuing many of the programs that his Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush, began after 9/11, and he engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on classified national security leaks.
Some of the surveillance programs are allowed under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which authorizes the government to ask a court for documents that would assist in an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established by Congress in 1978, signs off on the orders. It oversees domestic surveillance and operates in secret.
Some of the proposed changes are meant to offset what until now has been a one-sided process. Last year, for instance, the court reported receiving 1,789 government applications for electronic surveillance. One was withdrawn and all the others were approved, according to the court’s annual report.
Separately, the government made 212 applications to the secret court last year for access to "certain business records." The court approved all these applications, though many of them with court-ordered modifications.
All told, the intelligence court has received 6,288 completed surveillance applications from the government since Obama took office. All have been approved.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has 11 members. All are federal judges taken from other courts, appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. has approved all the current judges.
Lesley Clark contributed to this report.