President Obama said Friday he would pursue reforms to open the legal proceedings surrounding government surveillance programs to greater scrutiny, the administration’s most concerted response yet 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. Several Democratic senators have proposed such changes to the court, which approves government 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 — known as 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.”
Obama spoke on the eve of a week’s vacation, and he struck a defiant tone in speaking about a range of issues over the hour-long news conference.
The Gallup tracking poll shows that his public approval rating of 44 percent is near a 12-month low. A mix of Republican opposition to his gun control legislation, public disclosure of the National Security Agency’s vast surveillance programs, and a turbulent Middle East have complicated the early months of what he intended to be an ambitious second term.
Obama defended his signature health-care legislation against Republican threats of repeal, expressed confidence over the eventual passage of immigration legislation, and noted that his brusque 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 summit scheduled for next month in Moscow, citing a lack of progress on a range of security and diplomatic issues.
A former constitutional law lecturer who campaigned on a pledge to ensure that national security policy remained consistent with American laws and values, Obama has faced a public outcry, including from many in his own party, since the scope of the NSA’s surveillance and data-collection effort was revealed earlier this summer by The Washington Post and the Guardian, a British newspaper.
He 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. Civil liberties advocates have called the programs overly intrusive, as technological advances improve spying capabilities and raise new privacy concerns at home and abroad.
In his 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 the former NSA contractor Edward 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 over the NSA’s surveillance programs that the president called for in May. 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.
The NSA, among the most secretive institutions in government, also released Friday a summary of the programs it operates under several provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act. Intelligence agencies will also set up a Web site 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. “And to others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.”
Privacy and civil liberties advocates received Obama’s proposals coolly, calling them a modest start.
“While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement that also urged Obama to “release the relevant FISA Court opinions and agency memos that have created a body of secret law that is far removed from public oversight and adequate congressional review.”
In recent weeks, a new threat emanating from Yemen revealed an enduring link between the leaders of al-Qaeda’s powerful franchise in that country and the group’s senior leadership in Pakistan, which Obama has said has been decimated through drone strikes and other operations.
The United States closed nearly two dozen diplomatic posts, including the one in Yemen, as a result of the threat. Obama defended his record against al-Qaeda on Friday by saying that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based franchise is known, is not able to execute large-scale attacks like those carried out by the original al-Qaeda leadership on Sept. 11, 2001.
“They have the capacity, potentially, to go after our businesses, they have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak,” Obama said. “And that’s exactly what we are seeing right now.”
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 chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.
He confirmed for the first time that his former senior economic adviser Lawrence Summers and Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Janet Yellen are two of the top candidates to replace departing Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.
Calling the post among the most important nominations he makes, Obama said he has come to Summers’s defense because of the intensity of criticism being leveled against him.
Obama, who is expected to make a formal nomination in the fall, made clear he had no favored candidate at this point. He said he wants a Fed chairman who gives equal weight to containing inflation and fostering economic growth.
“If you look at the biggest challenges we have, the challenge is not inflation,” Obama said. “The challenge is, we’ve still got too many people out of work, too many long-term unemployed, too much slack in the economy.”
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 critical phase this fall.
On Friday, Obama sharply criticized Republicans for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, saying that "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.”
“That’s hard to understand as an agenda that is going to strengthen our middle class,” he said.
Obama declined to answer what he would do if congressional Republicans insist, as some are urging, 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.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.