WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama said Friday that revelations about the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes have seriously damaged America’s security and intelligence-gathering capabilities, and indicated that changes would be made to win back sagging public trust in the government’s policies.
At the same time, Obama was firm in maintaining that NSA intelligence gathering is vital in keeping the terrorist threat at bay. At his year-end press conference at the White House, Obama signaled that he may halt the NSA’s collection and storage of millions of Americans’ phone records and instead require phone companies to hold the data.
He said that he would have a “pretty definitive statement” on proposed NSA reforms in January, following his family’s annual holiday break in Hawaii. Details of the NSA’s far-reaching surveillance programs were publicly revealed in June.
The president said he believed his administration has struck the right balance between intelligence gathering and privacy protection but acknowledged that concerns about the potential for abuse may make it necessary to rein in the programs to restore public trust.
“The environment has changed,” Obama said. He said that it “matters more that people right now are concerned,” and added, “Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should.”
During the 60-minute news conference, Obama also reiterated his claim of personal responsibility for the disastrous rollout of his health-care law. In addition, he expressed optimism that he could advance his agenda in 2014, beginning with immigration reform. “I think 2014 needs to be a year of action,” Obama said.
The president said his NSA review, based on the assessments of intelligence officials and other officials inside and outside of the federal government, would determine which programmes to maintain or eliminate, both domestically and internationally. An independent White House panel released a report this week questioning whether the NSA’s sweeping collection of personal data had played any meaningful role in preventing terrorist attacks. A federal judge also ruled that the data collection was probably unconstitutional.
Obama acknowledged that the United States needs to provide “more confidence” to the international community amid widespread outrage over revelations of US spying on many foreign allies.
“What has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence communities are not spying on Americans,” Obama said.
“We’ve had less legal constraint in terms of what we’re doing internationally.”
He added, “In a virtual world, some of these boundaries don’t matter anymore.”
Obama defended the NSA, saying that he has seen no evidence that the agency “acted inappropriately” with the billions of call records it has assembled in a secret database, a claim that is at odds with compliance reports and other documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama all but endorsed one of the White House panel’s proposals, which would require phone companies to hold the data that the NSA has been collecting.
“It is possible that some of the same information can be obtained by having private phone companies keep those records longer” and allowing the government to search them under tight guidelines, Obama said.
That prospect has drawn fire from privacy advocates and technology experts, who say it would be as bad as or worse than having the NSA hold the records. Phone companies also do not want to be the custodians of data sought by law enforcement or civil attorneys.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama tried to strike a middle ground on Friday on questions about broad surveillance practices conducted by the US National Security Agency, saying some checks are needed on the system but “we can’t unilaterally disarm.”
At a White House news conference, Obama said he would spend the next few weeks sorting through the recommendations of a presidential advisory panel on how to rein in the NSA in the wake of disclosures from former US spy contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama said it is possible that some bulk phone data collected by intelligence agencies could be kept by private companies instead of the US government as a way of restoring Americans’ trust in the program.
“We can’t unilaterally disarm,” said Obama. But he said data collection could be “refined” to give the public more confidence that privacy is not being violated.
Questions about US government spying on civilians and foreign officials burst into the open in June when Snowden, now in Russia, leaked documents documenting widespread collection of phone and email. Snowden has been charged with divulging classified information and the United States has unsuccessfully sought his return to stand trial.
Obama conceded that the revelations have led to “an important conversation that we needed to have” about balancing security needs and privacy, but he said Snowden’s actions have hurt US interests.
“As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to US intelligence capabilities and US diplomacy,” he said.
The president said the leaked information had given some countries which have worse records on human rights, privacy protection and freedom of dissent than the United States the leeway to disparage US policies.
“That’s a pretty distorted view of what’s going on out there,” he said.
He declined to answer whether he would consider granting Snowden immunity from prosecution, saying he could not comment on a legal proceeding.
One recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the president to propose reforms to US surveillance was to halt the bulk collection of phone call records, known as “metadata.”
Asked whether he would adopt that proposal, Obama suggested there was justification for that collection, but said that the process could be done differently.
Having all of that data in one place would make it possible to track the calls of a known terrorist into the United States, giving the NSA confidence it could follow up on possible threats, he said.
“The question we’re going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it’s supposed to be doing?” Obama asked.
The leaders of the intelligence committees in the US Congress lined up against the review panel’s finding on Friday, defending the NSA’s metadata collection in a statement.
“The NSA’s metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently ‘connect the dots’ on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States,” Senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss and US Representatives Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger said.
Feinstein, a Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Chambliss the panel’s top Republican. Rogers, a Republican, chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence panel, where Ruppersberger is the top Democrat.