WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama suggested Friday that he could make significant changes to the government’s vast surveillance programs, including the contentious mass collection of phone records, but insisted that the United States needs to continue its aggressive surveillance to prevent terrorist attacks.
“It is clear that whatever benefits . . . this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse,” Obama said in his final news conference of the year. “And, if that’s the case, there may be another way of skinning the cat.”
Obama said he will make a “definitive statement” about the programs next month after considering his options during a two-week family vacation in Hawaii, which began Friday evening. “I’m taking this very seriously,” he said.
Obama said that former government contractor Edward Snowden, who has been releasing classified information showing the breadth of government spying, has “done unnecessary damage” to the United States’ reputation.
But he declined to weigh in on whether Snowden, who has been charged with espionage and theft of government property, should be granted amnesty. Earlier this week, a National Security Agency official said the government should consider the option. Snowden is living in Russia under temporary asylum.
In the hour-long news conference at the White House, Obama also dismissed suggestions that 2013 was the worst year of his presidency, citing an increase in both new jobs and insurance enrollees under the new health care law. He acknowledged his biggest regret was the chaotic introduction of the health care website. “We screwed it up,” he said.
Obama hailed the bipartisan budget deal that Congress sent to him this week, calling it a “good start” that unwinds some of the across-the-board spending cuts and avoids a “reckless” shutdown.
The president closes out the year with historic low job approval ratings, but he said he is not interested in the numbers. “What I’ve been focused on each and every day is, are we moving the ball, helping the American people,” he said.
While Obama declined to rule out amnesty for Snowden, he continued to point out the damage done by him.
Since June, Snowden has leaked documents showing the National Security Agency has been collecting telephone and email records on tens of millions of Americans and foreigners, eavesdropping on allies such as Germany and Brazil, and spying on a host of global institutions including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“As a consequence of these disclosures, we’ve got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he’s worried about . . . who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it’s the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations,” Obama said. “And that’s a pretty distorted view of what’s going on out there.”
Obama continued to defend the NSA, saying the agency has never been accused of misusing any data, even though at least two judges have questioned the validity of the initial collections of email and phone records.
Just this week, a federal judge found that the program that collects phone data “likely” violates the Constitution. Though that ruling is stayed pending the government’s appeal, the legal argument is expected to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Obama said he would spend the next few weeks reviewing a report by an advisory panel recommending nearly 50 changes to the NSA’s surveillance programs, which have guided intelligence gathering by the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should,” he said. “And the values that we’ve got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, I think, perhaps more systematically than we’ve done in the past.”
The proposals include an end to the NSA’s storage of Americans’ telephone records, more stringent handling of Americans’ data that is collected incidentally through targeting foreigners, concrete standards for targeting communications of foreign leaders, and the creation of a public interest advocate to represent Americans’ interest in front of the secret court that authorizes the spying programs.
Obama could administer some of the recommendations through executive actions, but others would require approval from a divided Congress, where support for NSA changes does not fall strictly along party lines.
In a rare move, the leadership of the House and Senate intelligence committees Friday urged Congress not to change the phone records collection program based on the panel’s report that the program is “not essential to preventing attacks.”
“The necessity of this program cannot be measured merely by the number of terrorist attacks disrupted, but must also take into account the extent to which it contributes to the overall efforts of intelligence professionals to quickly respond to, and prevent, rapidly emerging terrorist threats,” the four wrote.
But a coalition of civil liberty and technology groups initially skeptical about Obama’s panel told reporters that they support many of the recommendations.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his group welcomes Obama’s willingness to consider ending the collection of Americans’ call records.
Obama already has some changes to the programs – even before he received the recommendations last week – though aides have declined to reveal what they are.
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed.
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