WASHINGTON -- In an effort to quell growing public unease, President Obama released new information about domestic spying, called on Congress to change the Patriot Act to increase oversight and safeguards, and urged lawmakers to consider allowing adversaries to appear against the government for the first time in the secret court that authorizes surveillance.
Obama made clear in a nearly one-hour news conference that he was responding to what he called the “very passionate but not always fully informed debate” that has erupted in the weeks since a former National Surveillance Agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, leaked classified surveillance programs to the media.
In response to a question, Obama said he doesn’t believe Snowden was a whistle blower or “a patriot.” He urged the self-proclaimed leaker to return to America from Russia, where he has been granted temporary asylum, to face felony charges, including espionage.
Obama said he is considering proposals to restrict the NSA from secretly collecting virtually all Americans’ telephone calling records, the most controversial of the programs Snowden exposed.
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He said he also is considering proposals to create a permanent staff of lawyers to advocate for the public, or to allow outside groups to file “amicus briefs,” in cases before the Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has approved the telephone surveillance effort. The goal, he said, is to ensure the 11 judges on the court hear a voice raising civil liberties concerns.
“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said in the White House East Room. “The American people have to have confidence in them, as well.”
One idea under consideration at the White House, aides said, would require telecommunication companies to archive domestic telephone calling records, rather than the government, so the NSA could obtain a warrant and search it for numbers linked to suspected terrorists overseas.
As the president spoke, the Justice Department released a 24-page administration White Paper that explains the government’s legal basis for the NSA’s bulk collection of so-called telephone metadata - phone numbers, duration and dates, but not names or content - under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
Following Snowden’s disclosures that the NSA has secretly collected domestic telephone records, as well as the contents of Americans’ emails, texts, chats and videos while targeting the Internet activity of foreigners, the president has largely defended the system as designed to fight terrorism without invading the privacy of Americans.
Obama argued, as he has in the past, that the leaks of classified information did not reveal any abuses of the law. But he conceded a need for greater openness and additional safeguards to reassure Americans that government surveillance programs do not violate privacy or civil liberties.
The press conference was his first in more than three months. Obama leaves Saturday for an eight day vacation with his family on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off Cape Cod in Massachusetts.White House officials said they will work with Congress to pursue changes to Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Ideas on the table include reducing the length of time the records are held, currently five years.
The government also could reduce the scope of its investigations when it runs a terrorist-linked number through the database and gets a hit. Currently, NSA analyzes the numbers called by the alleged terrorist, and then everyone those people called, and then on to a third so-called “hop” of calling relationships that could include millions of people.
Obama said he also will form a high level group of outside exerts to review current surveillance technology and capabilities, and ensure it is in line with American values. “We need new thinking for a new era,” he said.
[For the Record, 1:37 p.m. PST Aug. 9: This post has been updated to reflect's Obama's full remarks during his press conference.]