President Obama held a press conference at the White House on Friday afternoon to announce four reforms he says will increase transparency and public awareness of the surveillance programs being carried out by the NSA and other US intelligence agencies. "It's not enough for me as President to have confidence in these programs, the American people need to have confidence as well," Obama said. "To others around the world, I want to make clear, once again, that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people, and in many cases, protect our allies."
His remarks came after months of his repeated defenses of the surveillance efforts, and the reforms seemed designed less to actually change things, and more to change public perception. After all, the administration recently moved to continue phone data collection.
"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot."
As the President declared: "it's true, we have significant capabilities. What's also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think to do, refuse to show." He said the reforms announced today came after conversations he had with members of Congress and civil liberties advocates who were concerned about the surveillance activity revealed in leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. "Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance," Obama said. "Particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives." Check out the full transcript of the President's remarks released by The White House.
The President also said while critics of surveillance were patriots, "I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," and the government is still pursuing him for three felonies. But he added: "there's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks triggered a rapid and much more passionate response than would've been the case" without the leaks.
The four proposed transparency reforms include:
- Changing section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the part of the law that allows the NSA to collect blanket phone records of all customers from US wireless companies such as Verizon. The President didn't specify what types of changes would be made beyond "greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of this authority," but said he'd work with Congress to reform the law. In terms of immediate transparency measures, the White House on Friday afternoon released a document detailing its interpretation of section 215.
- Reforming the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), or FISA Court, the secret court that approves NSA phone and Internet surveillance requests, so that there's an advocate challenging those requests on behalf of the public. Previously, the court only heard "one side of the story," as President Obama admitted — the government's. Today, the White House also promised it would make public a 2011 FISA Court ruling that found some spying unconstitutional, and is set to release on August 12 to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had been engaged in a years-long lawsuit to get ahold of it.
- The NSA is working to appoint a privacy and civil liberties officer, according to the President. The broader US intelligence community, which includes the NSA and CIA, is also going to launch a new website that Obama said will include more information on what activities the agencies are involved in.
- Finally, the President said the White House is creating an independent advisory group made up of "outside experts" who will be allowed to review the government's surveillance activities and publish a public report within two months (60 days), and a final report by the end of the year. It's unclear if this committee will have any real power to change things though, or if the government will follow any of their suggestions.
The President took reporters' questions on a variety of surveillance matters and other unrelated topics, such as the controversy over recent anti-gay rights legislation in Russia ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the country, and his frosty relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, following the country's decision to grant temporary asylum to Snowden. Explaining his abrupt cancellation earlier this week of an upcoming one-on-one meeting with Putin, Obama said: "Keep in mind that our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden, it had to do with, frankly, on a whole bunch of issues where we think we can make progress, Russia has not moved."
The American Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group that is one of Obama's most persistent critics on surveillance and privacy, released a statement saying the reforms didn't go nearly far enough. "While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient," the ACLU said Friday.
Chris Welch and Josh Kopstein contributed to this report