At a press conference at the White House on Friday, President Obama called for reforms to the National Security Agency’s (N.S.A.) surveillance programs to restore the public’s confidence in the N.S.A.’s tactics. Despite his continued faith in the legality of the programs, the president stressed the general public must have proof the United States government in not encroaching into their privacy.
“It is not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” said Obama.
The president outlined four specific reforms that will increase transparency and oversight of the N.S.A. spying program. First, Obama would like to work with Congress to reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows collection of phone data. Second, the president aims to strengthen the oversight capabilities of the secret court that “checks” the data collection. Third, the N.S.A. will set up a privacy and civil liberties office, as well as a website that will “serve as a hub of further transparency.” Finally, the president intends to bring in a group of “outside experts” to review the extent of the N.S.A. surveillance program.
These experts will review the nation’s surveillance laws and will submit an interim report to the president in 60 days and a full report by the end of the year. The group will be charged with coming up with “new ideas” to ensure privacy from the NSA.
Obama reiterated his rebuke of intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, but claimed Snowden’s leaks “triggered a much more rapid and passionate response.” Obama believes the conversation that Snowden sparked, however, would have come without him breaking the law. “It would have been less exciting, it would not have generated as much press,” the president said, adding, “I don’t think Mr. Snowden is a patriot.”
The NSA’s activities are clouded in secrecy because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that decides the agency’s jurisdiction only issues secret rulings, a practice Congress has voted twice to continue. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) says this amounts to “secret law.”
In the past week, numerous news reports have challenged the president’s previous assurance that “we don’t have a domestic spying program.”
On Thursday, The New York Times‘ Charlie Savage reported information contradictory to President Obama’s statements. Savage wrote the N.S.A. is “searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance.”
On Friday, The Guardian reported further contrasting information about the N.S.A., regarding a “secret backdoor into it’s vast databases…enabling it to search for U.S. citizens’ email and phone calls without warrant.” Evidence of the “back door” was leaked to The Guardian by former N.S.A. contractor Edward Snowden.
The editorial boards and pundits piled on:
“Apparently no espionage tool that Congress gives the National Security Agency is big enough or intrusive enough to satisfy the agency’s inexhaustible appetite for delving into the communications of Americans,” read the lead editorial in The New York Times Friday.
On Friday afternoon, Joshua Green, senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, called the president’s statements about the spying program “blatantly untrue” on NOW with Alex Wagner.
Furthermore, The Guardian’s Michael Boyle, argued Monday the president’s legacy will be forever tarnished in large part due to these practices. “His legacy will be that he confirmed, rather than challenged, the errors made by his predecessor and created a terrifying apparatus of surveillance and assassination that will be tempting for future presidents to use against foreign, and perhaps, domestic enemies,” Boyle wrote.
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