August 9, 2013

EVER SINCE Edward Snowden leaked a series of documents on the National Security Agency (NSA) information-gathering programs, President Obama has praised the notion of more debate on what information — and when — the government can collect about Americans. But he hasn’t engaged much in that debate. At a Friday news conference, he finally jumped in — and in a constructive way.

“It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Mr. Obama said. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.” With the stated goal of calming Americans’ legitimate concerns, the president offered, in general terms, several reform proposals. He insisted that changing those programs was always part of his second-term plan, saying that “we would have gotten to the same place” without the recent public uproar. That effort to write Mr. Snowden out of the picture wasn’t very convincing. More important were Mr. Obama’s proposals, which are good, if still in need of filling out.

Among the best is his plan to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the keystone of national security surveillance oversight. Americans rely on the court to make sensible decisions about how the government can deploy its formidable capabilities to vacuum up information. Currently, the federal judges who serve on the court hear only from the government, even when there are major issues of law on the table. Mr. Obama said, “We can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice, in appropriate cases, by ensuring that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary.” The president should also consider ways to make the court’s proceedings more visible to the public, perhaps by regularly declassifying redacted decisions when they concern high-level questions of law.

After all, Mr. Obama also promised on Friday to make the government’s anti-terror work more transparent. He touted the NSA’s move to hire a “full-time civil liberties and privacy officer,” and announced that “the intelligence community is creating a Web site that will serve as a hub for further transparency.” Given that there will be a number of in-house overseers within the government, a critical question is what procedures the administration will establish to determine who gets to publish on that site and when.

Mr. Obama also said he would “put in place greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of” the government’s claimed authority to collect Americans’ telephone records in bulk.

On that and other matters, the president will have to elaborate to the public and to Congress. At the least, he should have a lot more to say after he hears back from the “high-level group of outside experts” he said he would convene to “review our capabilities, particularly our surveillance technologies” and consider “how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used.”

Mr. Obama’s outside experts will deliver an interim report in 60 days. We look forward to hearing from them — and to hearing more from the president. His remarks today represent an encouraging opening bid.