(Adds congressional statement, paragraphs 15-17)
By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (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)