U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear Friday he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of Americans' phone records. And while he offered "appropriate reforms," he blamed government leaks for creating distrust of his domestic spying program.
In a news conference, the president acknowledged the domestic spying has troubled Americans and hurt the country's image abroad. But he called it a critical counterterrorism tool.
"I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused," Obama said. "I am comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, 'You know what? These folks are following the law."'
Because the program remains classified, it's impossible for Americans to conduct that analysis.
"Understandably, people would be concerned," Obama said. "I would be, too, if I weren't inside the government." After former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing National Security Agency programs that monitor Internet and phone data, the debate over national security and privacy has led to the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Every day, the NSA sweeps up the phone records of all Americans. The program was authorized under the 'USA Patriot Act,' which Congress hurriedly passed after the 2001 attacks. The NSA says phone records are the only information it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility that it could create similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
The speech followed a week of leaks in which government officials anonymously described a serious Al-Qaida threat revealed in a phone conversation intercepted by U.S. surveillance.
Obama endorsed modest oversight changes to the surveillance programs Friday.
His most significant proposal would create an independent attorney to argue against the government during secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews requests for surveillance inside the U.S. As it stands now, prosecutors alone can go to the court and make their case unopposed.
Obama also is creating an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers. He did not say who would be on that panel, he met secretly this week with technology business leaders. Some cooperated with the government surveillance and were unhappy to see their companies named in leaked government documents.
Obama said the NSA would hire a privacy officer, and his intelligence agencies would build a website explaining their mission.
As Obama spoke, the Justice Department released what Obama called "the legal rationale" for the surveillance. But the document was not a legal analysis and amounted primarily to a recitation of what the administration has already told Congress.
Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public. The telephone program narrowly survived a 217-205 vote in the House to dismantle it.
The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
When the NSA identifies a suspect, analysts can look not just at the suspect's phone records, but also at the records of everyone he calls and everyone who calls those people.
If every person talks to 40 unique people, for example, the analysis will capture the records of 64,000 people. Since the NSA searched the phone database 300 times last year, such analysis would allow the review of records of 19 million people. The NSA says it does not routinely conduct such a broad analysis.
Even with the proposed changes, Obama will have to persuade Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2015.
"This is how we're going to resolve our differences in the United States," Obama said, "through vigorous public debate guided by our Constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws, and with respect for the facts."
The White House chose to announce the changes and release the documents on a Friday in August when Congress was on vacation.
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