President Barack Obama announced steps Friday to give more public oversight to the nation's surveillance programs, saying he will open up previously secret legal opinions and pursue reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
In a press conference at the White House, Obama said the measures would strike a balance between programs that protect the United States from terrorist attacks and restoring the trust of Americans who have grown wary of government intrusion on their privacy.
While Obama said he had confidence in the surveillance programs, "the American people need to have confidence in them as well." He said he wants to regain the trust of the American public, as well as the world, which was undermined by what he called the "dribs and drabs" of media coverage about the programs.
"I am comfortable that the program is not currently being abused," Obama said today.
Obama said leaks of National Security Agency surveillance programs in June by former government contractor Edward Snowden triggered a rapid and passionate response. Obama said he thinks "we would have gotten to the same place" amid the administration’s planned review of the programs.
Obama said he would work with Congress to pursue reforms to the Patriot Act's Section 215, which includes a program that collects telephone records of millions of Americans. The collected data includes calls placed, duration of calls and other information, but not content of the calls.
"I believe there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence" about the program, Obama said, and give the public greater oversight and transparency on how the government uses the authority.
Obama said he ordered the Justice Department to release the legal rationale for Section 215, part of more openness that includes a full time civil liberties and privacy officer at the NSA and a website at the NSA agency with more information about the programs.
In addition, Obama said he would work by Congress to improve confidence in the judicial oversight of the NSA surveillance programs. One measure that will be looked at, he said, is the inclusion of an adversary within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That move is aimed at addressing concerns, raised by a former judge on the court and others, that judges only hear the government's side of the story.
"While I have confidence in the court, I think we can provide greater assurance that the court is looking at this from both sides of the issue," Obama said.
Obama also said he would form a high-level group of experts to review the government's surveillance technologies and telecommunications capabilities, with a report in 60 days and a final report by the end of the year.
"We need new thinking for a new era," Obama said.