Obama pledges greater transparency in surveillance programs

President Barack Obama answers reporters' questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House August 9, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
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President Barack Obama answers reporters' questions during a news conference in the East Room of the White House August 9, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama announced plans on Friday to limit sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs that have come under criticism since leaks by a former spy agency contractor, saying the United States "can and must be more transparent."

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama told a news conference at the White House.

Saying that it was important to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties, Obama said he was unveiling specific steps to improve oversight of surveillance and restore public trust in the government's programs.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well," Obama said, adding that he was confident the programs were not being abused.

The announcement—made just before Obama heads for summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard—may be greeted as at least a partial victory for supporters of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden who is now in Russia, where he was granted asylum last week.

The Obama administration has vigorously pursued Snowden to bring him back to the United States to face espionage charges for leaking details of the surveillance programs to the media.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said at the news conference, brushing off the suggestion that Friday's announcement showed Snowden had done the right thing in revealing the extent of the government's program.

(Read more: CIA, FBI, and NSA taking steps to limit leaks)

Obama said he plans to work with Congress to pursue "appropriate reforms" of Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of so-called "metadata" such as phone records, insisting that the government had no interest in spying on ordinary Americans.

He did not specifically lay out how that program will be reined in. Instead, he pledged greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints.

Obama will also pursue with Congress a reform of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities to target an individual for intelligence gathering.

Obama said he wants to let a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court's deliberations to ensure an adversarial voice is heard.

The secretive court, authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, has been criticized for essentially rubber stamping the U.S. government's requests to search through Americans' electronic records.

Currently, the FISA court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but U.S. Justice Department lawyers in its behind-closed-doors proceedings.

Obama also said he wants to provide more details about the NSA programs to try to restore any public trust damaged by the Snowden disclosures.

The administration will also form a high-level group of outside experts to review the U.S. surveillance effort.

Mixed response

The NSA declined to comment on Obama's proposals. It is also not clear if Congress will take up the initiatives. A number of influential lawmakers have vigorously defended the spying programs as critical tools needed to detect terrorist threats.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Friday that her panel will hold a series of hearings to study the surveillance programs.

"This will be the primary order of business for the committee this fall and will be used to develop proposals to increase transparency and improve privacy protections for these vital national security programs," Feinstein said.

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Republicans expect the White House must ensure that reforms do not compromise programs that protect against terrorism. He also criticized Obama for not sufficiently explaining the government's data collection.

"Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face," Buck said.

(Related video: Reaction from Obama's news conference)

Republican Representative Peter King issued a statement stridently defending the surveillance programs and calling Obama's reform plan "a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility."

Privacy and international security

The Patriot Act, launched by then-President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was initiated as a terrorism-fighting tool to prevent a similar attack from ever happening again.

But frequent questions have been raised about the scope of the law and whether its sweeping tactics allows unwarranted intelligence gathering on innocent Americans.

The Snowden disclosures generated concerns about whether people were being forced to sacrifice their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the open-ended search for terrorism links.

Obama met with the CEOs of technology and telecoms companies such Apple and AT&T on Thursday to discuss government surveillance. A Google computer scientist and transparency advocates also participated in the meeting, according to the White House.

The search for Snowden has upset U.S. relations with some Latin American countries, China and, above all, Russia. Obama this week canceled a planned summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin.

Obama said the United States has always had tension with Russia and it was an appropriate juncture to reassess where the two nations stand. "Frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved," Obama said.

The revelation of the sweeping U.S. electronic spying programs has also alienated countries such as Germany, which fiercely defends its citizens' privacy rights.

The next Fed chair

Obama also touched on the topic of choosing the next chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

He noted that apparent front-runners Lawrence Summers and Janet Yellen are both highly qualified to replace current Fed chair Ben Bernanke, but stressed they are not the only names being considered.

"Frankly, I think both Larry Summers and Janet Yellen are highly qualified candidates. There are a couple of other candidates who are highly qualified as well. I'll make the decision in the fall," he said.

Bernanke's term expires on Jan. 31, 2014. Obama's remarks made it even more clear that Bernanke will not serve a third term, even though he has not said anything in public about his future plans.

(Read more: Summers vs. Yellen: Who back who)

Summers, a former top Obama economic adviser, has come to be viewed as the leading contender for the job, but the president insisted that he had not made up his mind.

"I think the perception that Mr. Summers might have an inside track simply had to do with a bunch of attacks that I was hearing on Mr. Summers preemptively—which is sort of the standard Washington exercise—that I don't like," Obama said.

The president has spoken behind closed doors in defense of his former White House National Economic Council director after around 20 Democratic senators signed a letter supporting Yellen as the next Fed chief.

Obama also spelled out that whomever gets the job ought to give equal weight to tackling inflation as to seeking full employment, the two sides of the central bank's dual mandate. He argued, however. that unemployment was currently the more pressing concern.

"Right now, if you look at the biggest challenge we have, the challenge is not inflation. The challenge is we've still got too many people out of work, too many long-term unemployed."

Obama also talked about the need for a sound dollar, which was how Summers frequently talked about thye U.S. currency while he was U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Yellen is viewed as somewhat more dovish in her monetary policy preferences than Summers, in terms of how she would weigh the need to keep inflation in check versus run a relatively looser monetary policy that would generate more employment.

On the other hand, the substantive monetary policy differences between them are not seen as terribly large.