Obama vows surveillance overhaul, more transparency
By Tangi Quemener and Shaun Tandon ,AFPWASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama pledged to overhaul U.S. secret surveillance on Friday, promising greater oversight and transparency and insisting he had no interest in snooping on ordinary citizens.
August 11, 2013, 12:02 am TWN
Weeks after former U.S. contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of widespread snooping on private Internet and telephone use, Obama stood firm in denying any abuse but acknowledged that he needed to address growing concerns.
“All these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values,” Obama told a news conference.
“And to others around the world I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” he said.
Obama said he would ask Congress to reform one of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — Section 215, which gives the government access to telephone and other records of its citizens.
In a newly declassified memo, the Justice Department said the program recorded data — such as duration and numbers — of phone calls feared to involve “terrorists” but did not record the conversations.
Obama also called for the start of debate in the court that authorizes surveillance, which now only receives requests from the government without hearing any counter-arguments as is customary in virtually all of the U.S. judiciary.
Obama said the administration would make a greater effort at transparency, including by starting a website that describes intelligence activities.
And he said he would appoint a board of outside experts who will look more closely at surveillance programs and issue a report by the end of the year.
Controversy has grown since Snowden, a former U.S. government contractor who fled to Russia, revealed some of the more sweeping aspects of U.S. surveillance on citizens' Internet searches and telephone records.
Obama, who canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in part over Russia's decision to grant asylum to the 30-year-old, insisted that he has always tried to prevent abuse of surveillance programs.
“I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said.
But Obama said of the Patriot Act: “Given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse.”
On July 25 the House of Representatives rejected a bid to cut funding for some National Security Agency programs by a surprisingly narrow 205-217 vote, with an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal members of Obama's Democratic Party voicing concern about citizens' privacy.
Representative Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican, said he hoped Obama was “serious” about reforms and vowed that dozens of lawmakers would press ahead.