POLITICS: PennAve

Obama calls for more oversight of NSA programs

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This article has been updated, 5:30 p.m. Friday.

President Obama on Friday called for more oversight of controversial National Security Agency surveillance programs, announcing the administration’s most far-reaching reaction to criticism in the wake of revelations about security techniques used by the federal government.

In his first solo news conference in more than three months, Obama announced that he would work with Congress to improve transparency surrounding the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Patriot Act provision that allows federal officials to seize Americans’ phone data.

“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said. “The American public needs to have confidence in them as well.”

Obama said that an adversarial voice should be added to the FISA Court to ensure that privacy rights are being protected. Critics have complained that court approves virtually all intelligence-gathering requests.

The president also announced a new task force of outside experts to study the surveillance programs. And the Justice Department released a document outlining its legal rationale for the programs.

Obama admitted that NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who fled the United States and was given temporary asylum in Russia after disclosing U.S. phone and Internet surveillance techniques, forced his hand. Ever since those revelations, Obama has been on the defensive for not being upfront with the American people about the scope of intelligence methods crafted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

That Obama chose to make the NSA push ahead of a weeklong vacation on Martha’s Vineyard shows the political potency of the civil-liberties debate for the White House.

For weeks, the administration has said Americans need not worry about the practices. In essence, the president ultimately capitulated, realizing that a more forceful response was needed to reduce blowback that has shown few signs of receding.

A series of recent polls found that a majority of Americans are suspicious that the NSA is infringing upon their privacy.

And the president, who once dismissed Snowden as just another “hacker,” was forced to weigh in on whether the former government contractor should be considered a whistle blower.

"No, I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said. “There were other avenues available for someone whose conscience was stirred and thought they needed to question government action.”

Snowden was recently granted temporary asylum in Russia, despite U.S. attempts to extradite him back home to face a trio of espionage charges.

Still, Obama said his administration had put in place suitable safeguards for the controversial techniques.

“All these steps are designed to ensure that the American people are in line with our interests and our values,” Obama said. “It is true we have significant capabilities. But it is also true that we show a restraint that many governments around the world do not.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced during Obama's press conference that her committee would hold hearings on the data-collection programs, ensuring that the debate would hardly subside by the time lawmakers return in September.

The review "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," she said.

Some Republicans said the president was to blame for not clarifying more details about the NSA programs earlier.

"Much of any public concern about this critical program can be attributed to the president’s reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program. That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it.  Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face.”

Other GOP lawmakers defended the NSA programs, saying more oversight isn't needed.

"These programs are legal, transparent and contain the appropriate checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government," said Rep. Peter King, R-New York and chairman of the House Homeland Security counterintelligence and terrorism subcommittee. "These intelligence tools keep Americans safe every single day."

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