WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday he would pursue changes to open the legal proceedings surrounding government-surveillance programs to greater scrutiny, the administration’s most concerted response to a series of disclosures about secret monitoring efforts.
At his first full news conference in more than three months, Obama said he intends to work with Congress on proposals that would add an adversarial voice — such as a lawyer assigned to advocate privacy rights — to the secret proceedings before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves requests for warrants and other collection efforts.
In addition, Obama said he intends to work on ways to tighten one provision of the Patriot Act — Section 215 — that has permitted the government to obtain the phone records of millions of Americans. He announced the creation of a panel of outsiders — former intelligence officials, civil-liberties and privacy advocates, and others — to assess the programs and suggest changes by the end of the year.
“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 need to have confidence in them as well.”
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Obama spoke on a range of issues on the eve of a week’s vacation. He defended his signature health-care legislation against Republican threats of repeal, expressed confidence over the eventual passage of immigration legislation, and noted that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has a “slouch” like “the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”
Obama recently canceled a meeting with Putin scheduled for next month in Moscow, citing a lack of progress on a range of security and diplomatic issues.
Obama has faced a public outcry, including from many in his own party, since the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance and data-collection effort was revealed this summer by The Washington Post and The Guardian, a British newspaper, in reports based on leaks from former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden.
Obama has defended the programs as essential to protecting the United States from foreign attack and continued to do so vigorously Friday, portraying the controversy as one of public perception rather than practice.
In introductory remarks, Obama announced the release of a Justice Department analysis of the legal rationale underpinning the government’s most controversial surveillance programs, brought to light in June by Snowden, who was recently granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Obama rejected the characterization of Snowden as a “patriot,” even though his disclosures accelerated a debate that the president called for in May over the NSA’s surveillance programs. He acknowledged: “There’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid, and passionate, response than if I had simply appointed this review board.
“If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case,” Obama said, referring to Snowden.
The NSA also released Friday a summary of the programs it operates under several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the Patriot Act. Intelligence agencies will also set up a website with the goal of better explaining their legal authorities and actions.
“All these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values,” Obama said
Obama touched upon a number of other issues, including the possibility of a government shutdown this fall, the prospects for immigration legislation, and his deliberations over whom he will select as the next Federal Reserve Board chairman.
He confirmed that his former senior economic adviser Larry Summers and Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen are two of the top candidates to replace departing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Calling the post among the most important nominations he makes, Obama said he has come to Summers’ defense because of the intensity of criticism being leveled against him.
Among the most important elements of Obama’s long-term legacy would be the successful implementation of his health-care law, a complicated process that begins a key phase this fall.
On Friday, Obama criticized Republicans for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying: “The really interesting question is, why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their Holy Grail.”
He declined to answer what he would do if congressional Republicans insist that he sign a bill defunding or scaling back Obamacare in exchange for a budget resolution that continues to fund the government past a Sept. 30 deadline.
“The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea,” he said.