Obama: U.S. needs checks on NSA data gathering but can't disarm

WASHINGTON Fri Dec 20, 2013 5:45pm EST

U.S. President Barack Obama holds his year-end news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington December 20, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama holds his year-end news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House in Washington December 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama tried to strike a middle ground on Friday on questions about broad surveillance practices conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency, saying some checks are needed on the system but "we can't unilaterally disarm."

At a White House news conference, Obama said he would spend the next few weeks sorting through the recommendations of a presidential advisory panel on how to rein in the NSA in the wake of disclosures from former U.S. spy contractor Edward Snowden.

Obama said it is possible that some bulk phone data collected by intelligence agencies could be kept by private companies instead of the U.S. government as a way of restoring Americans' trust in the program.

"We can't unilaterally disarm," said Obama. But he said data collection could be "refined" to give the public more confidence that privacy is not being violated.

Questions about U.S. government spying on civilians and foreign officials burst into the open in June when Snowden, now in Russia, leaked documents documenting widespread collection of phone and email. Snowden has been charged with divulging classified information and the United States has unsuccessfully sought his return to stand trial.

Obama conceded that the revelations have led to "an important conversation that we needed to have" about balancing security needs and privacy, but he said Snowden's actions have hurt U.S. interests.

"As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy," he said.

The president said the leaked information had given some countries which have worse records on human rights, privacy protection and freedom of dissent than the United States the leeway to disparage U.S. policies.

"That's a pretty distorted view of what's going on out there," he said.

He declined to answer whether he would consider granting Snowden immunity from prosecution, saying he could not comment on a legal proceeding.


One recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the president to propose reforms to U.S. surveillance was to halt the bulk collection of phone call records, known as "metadata."

Asked whether he would adopt that proposal, Obama suggested there was justification for that collection, but said that the process could be done differently.

Having all of that data in one place would make it possible to track the calls of a known terrorist into the United States, giving the NSA confidence it could follow up on possible threats, he said.

"The question we're going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing?" Obama asked.

The leaders of the intelligence committees in the U.S. Congress lined up against the review panel's finding on Friday, defending the NSA's metadata collection in a statement.

"The NSA's metadata program is a valuable analytical tool that assists intelligence personnel in their efforts to efficiently 'connect the dots' on emerging or current terrorist threats directed against Americans in the United States," Senators Dianne Feinstein and Saxby Chambliss and U.S. Representatives Mike Rogers and Dutch Ruppersberger said.

Feinstein, a Democrat, is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Chambliss the panel's top Republican. Rogers, a Republican, chairs the House of Representatives Intelligence panel, where Ruppersberger is the top Democrat.

Obama also said he is confident the security agency is not engaged in domestic spying.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Eric Walsh)

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Comments (1)
seren37 wrote:
Obama is on the news, still cursing Snowden. Nuts to him. I want my vote back. He’s good at protecting the Banksters and the NSA, but as for the middle class, not much. He jawboned about inequality only because the Pope and the Walmart strikers dragged him kicking and screaming to it, but where is the Action? Where is the proposal to raise the miserable minimum wage? He’ll just talk, talk, talk like he always does, fooling those who voted for him into thinking he’s going to do something, as he hatches devious plans to cut Social Security by giving his cut a deceptive name – chained CPI. It’s the second Bush presidency.

What I see about Obama’s statements regarding reining in the NSA is what he’s famous for: vague promises that amount to nothing – maybe even the opposite.

If we’d had a Snowden during Iraq war, to expose That lie, we would have saved thousands of American lives, now-dead troops would be home for Christmas, and we wouldn’t have wrecked the economy spending two trillion dollars bombing the wrong nation (the real culprit was Saudi Arabia.) This President sounds more and more like a Republican every day. Snowden is a hero and Obama is a bum for going after him. And also for keeping Assange a virtual prisoner, using the worthless Brits as a proxy.

Dec 21, 2013 9:06am EST  --  Report as abuse
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