Revelations of government surveillance programs, including the headline-grabbing PRISM, have been nothing short of a PR nightmare for the White House. President Obama, who ran in part on a platform that included opposition to certain elements of the Patriot Act and President Bush's illegal wiretapping program, has faced tough questions about his role in the NSA data collection system. Today, he addressed reporters in the White House press room and, as part of his regular briefing, began to layout a path to increased transparency that he hopes will re-earn the trust of the citizens.
After consulting with members of congress and civil liberties organizations, President Obama has come up with four initial steps to improve transparency and confidence, while working to maintain essential security apparatus. First up, is a direct dialog with congress about reforming section 215 of the Patriot Act, which is the part of the legislation regarding the collection of telephone records. Obama also took the opportunity to reiterate that the government does not have the ability to eavesdrop on phone calls without a warrant. The second step also involved congress and working to improve confidence in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Most notably, he said the government would pursue reforms that would ensure judges would hear opposing views from independent civil liberties proponents, in addition to government representatives.
Just as important in trying to silence critics, Obama said that he has, "directed security organizations to make as much info about these programs public as possible." Just how detailed that information is going to be remains to be seen, but in addition to already declassified documents, the president said he will declassify the legal rationalization behind section 215 of the Patriot Act. He also proposed creating a centralized, public hub of information about the government's intelligence gathering efforts. The fourth step, involves the creation of a group of external experts to reevaluate the nation's intelligence apparatus. This commission would eventually present proposals for further reforms that would improve transparency and better protect the privacy of American citizens. The legislative changes would be needed to reflect the current technological capabilities of the intelligence community, which president Obama acknowledged were staggering. Without naming Russia directly, he seemed to take a pointed jab at the nation currently harboring Edward Snowden, pointing out that America's most vocal critics have many of the same surveillance capabilities, but lack the legal safeguards that prevent the government from simply jailing dissidents.
He was effusive in noting that this was just the beginning of a broader move towards addressing the concerns of citizens, and repeated that "America is not interested in spying on ordinary people." While the initial focus of Obama's conference focused on proactively addressing concerns, he spent a good amount of time defending his and the governments conduct. The president explained that many of these reform efforts were already in motion before Edward Snowden leaked information about PRISM and other NSA efforts to mine data. Before the story broke, he had ordered a review of surveillance programs, and is confident many of the same conclusions would have been reached. He said that, "there's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response," in an effort to reform our laws to better reflect current technological capabilities. But he continued to repeat that the reforms were not about stopping abuse, since there are already legal safeguards in place to prevent that. Instead the next steps were mostly focused on improving the comfort of citizens and restore trust in our intelligence gather organizations. Whether or not the President's proposals can ease the fears of a suspicious populace remains to be seen.
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