By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 9, 2013 - President Barack Obama today announced four steps that he said would move the public debate forward about classified government surveillance programs that gather data about the telephone records of Americans and others.
During an hour-long press conference at the White House, Obama said it is right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology reshapes every aspect of people's lives.
"I'm also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas ...," he said. "In other words, 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."
Over the past few weeks the president said he has consulted with members of Congress, asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review tensions between counterterrorism efforts and American values, and directed the national security team to be more transparent and pursue reforms of laws and practices.
"Today," Obama said, "I'd like to discuss four specific steps -- not all inclusive, but some specific steps that we're going to be taking very shortly to move the debate forward."
These include the following --
1. The president will work with Congress to pursue reforms to Section 215 of the 2001 Patriot Act, the program that authorizes collects the collection telephone records.
Obama called the program an important tool in the effort to disrupt terrorist plots that does not allow the government to listen to phone calls without a warrant.
"But given the scale of this program," he said, "I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse."
After speaking with members of Congress and civil libertarians, Obama said he thinks there are steps that can be taken to give Americans more confidence that there are safeguards against abuse.
"For instance," he said, "we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of this authority."
2. The president will work with Congress to improve public confidence in oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISC.
Congress created this court to provide judicial review of certain intelligence activities so a federal judge must find that federal actions are consistent with the Constitution.
But to build greater confidence, Obama said, "I think we should consider some additional changes to the FISC. One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story -- may tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty."
The president said looking at such issues from the perspectives of security and privacy might provide greater assurances to the public.
Specifically, he said, "we can take steps to make sure civil liberties, concerns, have an independent voice in appropriate cases by ensuring the government's position is challenged by an adversary."
3. The president said the government can and must be more transparent.
The president said he's directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible.
"We've already declassified unprecedented information about the [National Security Agency] but we can go further," he said. "So at my direction the Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the government's collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act."
The NSA is taking steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, Obama said, and release information that details its mission, authorities and oversight.
The intelligence community is also creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency, the president said.
"This will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn't do, how it carries out its mission and why it does so," Obama said.
4. The president is forming a high-level group of outside experts to review all intelligence and communications technologies.
"We need new thinking for a new era," Obama said. "We now have to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle in a haystack of global telecommunications. And meanwhile, technology has given governments, including our own, unprecedented capability to monitor communications."
The president is tasking the independent group to review U.S. capabilities, particularly surveillance technologies.
"They'll 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, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy, particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public," Obama said.
The group will provide an interim report in 60 days and a final report by year's end, he said, "so we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy and our foreign policy."
To others around the world, Obama said he wants to make clear that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.
"Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that's necessary to protect our people -- and in many cases, protect our allies," he said.
"It's true, we have significant capabilities," he added. "What's also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think to do .... That includes, by the way, some of America's most vocal critics."
This is how the United States will resolve its differences, the president said. "Through vigorous public debate guided by our constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws, and with respect for the facts."