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Obama outlines proposals for reining in NSA surveillance

Critics of the National Security Agency program welcome the president's proposed limits on the government's intelligence surveillance efforts.

August 09, 2013|By Christi Parsons, Ken Dilanian and David Lauter
  • President Obama leaves a White House news conference at which he announced his proposals for limiting government intelligence surveillance programs.
President Obama leaves a White House news conference at which he announced… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)

WASHINGTON — President Obama proposed significant new limits on the power of intelligence agencies to secretly collect vast amounts of information on Americans, responding to weeks of controversy with steps he said were designed to "ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values."

The proposals include measures to ensure that the government no longer will be the only side represented before the secret court that approves intelligence surveillance. They mark the first results of an intense debate within the administration about how to address the public unease over domestic spying that began with disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Further measures remain under debate as intelligence officials try to head off more drastic changes in Congress. The additional steps the administration is considering include amending the law to limit how much information on Americans the NSA can acquire and how long it can keep the data.

Even the steps announced so far amount to a shift after 12 years in which Congress and the White House, responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, have mostly expanded the authority and budgets of intelligence agencies.

Key members of Congress on both sides of the surveillance debate offered qualified support, heightening the chance that legislation reining in some of the NSA's authority could pass this fall.

The proposals also represent a victory for Snowden, the 30-year-old fugitive who released details about the NSA's classified programs, saying he wanted to start a debate over the appropriateness of U.S. efforts to gather data from the world's telephone and Internet systems.

Friday, in a near hourlong news conference a day before he heads to Martha's Vineyard for a nine-day family vacation, Obama engaged in that debate. He criticized Snowden, who has obtained temporary asylum in Russia, and called on him to return to face felony charges for leaking classified information. But the president also conceded the impact Snowden has had on the national debate.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said. "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 he already had moved toward reviewing intelligence collection programs before Snowden's disclosures. But, he added, "there's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response" in Congress and among the American public.

Obama also criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that in granting refuge to Snowden and opposing the U.S. on other issues, he had engaged in a reflexive anti-Americanism that "played into the old Cold War stereotypes."

Obama said he has a good working relationship with Putin, despite his decision to cancel a summit meeting with the Russian leader that had been scheduled in Moscow for next month after a G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg. Their

personal rapport has little to do with whether U.S.-Russian relations improve, he said.

"Right now, this is just a matter of where Mr. Putin and the Russian people want to go," Obama said. "If they are looking forward into the 21st century," he said, "then I think we can work together."

On the other hand, "if issues are framed as, 'if the U.S. is for it, then Russia should be against it,' or we're going to be finding ways where we can poke each other at every opportunity, then probably we don't get as much stuff done," he added.

Obama acknowledged that intelligence officials' desire to classify all aspects of their programs had hurt public trust.

He said he had told officials that "rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg come out there and a tail come out there, let's just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at."

And he defended U.S. actions against critics in Europe and elsewhere who, he said, have minimized U.S. efforts to avoid intelligence abuses.

"We shouldn't forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online, under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online," he said.

But while he defended the existing efforts, he also said he was considering several proposals to restrict them, particularly the most controversial program, which allows NSA to collect virtually all Americans' telephone calling records.

The NSA currently maintains a database of "metadata" on nearly every telephone call made within the United States. The data include which numbers called which other numbers, the date and time of each call and its duration. The database does not identify the callers, or include the contents of any call, officials repeatedly have said.

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