By EILEEN SULLIVAN
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama made it clear Friday he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of American phone records. And while he offered “appropriate reforms,” he blamed government leaks for creating distrust of his domestic spying program.
In an afternoon news conference, the president acknowledged the domestic spying has troubled Americans and hurt the country’s image abroad. But he called it a critical counterterrorism tool.
“I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused,” Obama said. “I am comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, ‘You know what? These folks are following the law.’”
Because the program remains classified, however, it’s impossible for Americans to conduct that analysis beyond the assurances his administration has given.
“Understandably, people would be concerned,” the president said.
“I would be, too, if I weren’t inside the government.”
Obama’s news conference came at the end of a summer that forced the administration into an unexpected debate over domestic surveillance, a debate that soon prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after 9/11 attacks.
The debate began when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing National Security Agency programs that monitor Internet and phone data.
Every day, the NSA sweeps up the phone records of all Americans. The program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The NSA says phone records are the only information it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility that it could create similar databases of people’s credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
Obama said he welcomed the debate, but his national security team also said it never intended to tell Americans about the highly classified phone program, which it falsely denied existed.
The speech followed a week of leaks in which government officials anonymously described a serious al-Qaida threat revealed in a phone conversation intercepted by U.S. surveillance. Obama reminded the public of that threat as he began his justification for the massive data collection programs.
As a senator, Obama criticized the Patriot Act provision that underpins the telephone surveillance. But he denied that his support for the program now represents a change in his views. When he took office, he said, he reviewed the surveillance tactics, made some changes, and believes they are useful and lawful.
To allay concerns, Obama endorsed modest oversight changes to a program he says already has plenty of it. None of them significantly changes the programs, and the president acknowledged they were intended to appease Americans, not to curtail the surveillance.
His most significant proposal would create an independent attorney to argue against the government during secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews requests for surveillance inside the U.S. As it stands now, prosecutors alone can go to the court and make their case unopposed.
Obama is creating an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers.
He did not say who would be on that panel but over the past week, the president met secretly with technology business leaders, some of whom cooperated with the government surveillance and were unhappy to see their companies named in leaked government documents.
The government already has a panel, mandated by Congress, to conduct the same review. The U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board has already held one hearing on the surveillance systems and constitutional concerns and its five members have been given classified briefings on NSA operations.
Obama said the NSA would hire a privacy officer and his intelligence agencies would build a website explaining their mission.
As Obama spoke, the Justice Department released what Obama called “the legal rationale” for the surveillance. But the document was not a legal analysis and amounted primarily to a recitation of what the administration has already told Congress.
Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public. The telephone program narrowly survived a 217-205 vote in the House to dismantle it. An unusual coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pose a challenge to Obama, who has aligned himself with establishment Republicans and Congress’ pro-security lawmakers.
The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can conduct three “hops.” That means analysts can look not just at the suspect’s phone records, but also at the records of everyone he calls and everyone who calls those people. The Justice Department document explains the math behind that analysis more fully than the administration has before.
If every person talks to 40 unique people, for instance, a three-hop analysis will capture the records of 64,000 people — not 2.5 million as has been surmised in Congress. But since the NSA searched the phone database 300 times last year, a “three-hop” analysis would allow analysts to review the records of 19 million people. The NSA says it does not routinely conduct such a broad analysis.
Even with the proposed changes, Obama will have to persuade Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2015.
“This is how we’re going to resolve our differences in the United States,” Obama said, “through vigorous public debate guided by our Constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws, and with respect for the facts.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the Patriot Act, has said the law was never meant to authorize such broad surveillance. Following Obama’s speech, Sensenbrenner’s spokesman said the congressman would propose a new law to “rein in the dragnet collection of data by the NSA.”
The White House chose to announce the changes and release the documents on a Friday afternoon in August when Congress was on vacation and much of Washington had cleared out.