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Obama Vows More Transparency in Response to Scrutiny Over Surveillance Programs

August 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In a formal White House news conference, President Barack Obama defended government surveillance programs, stating they will continue but with added oversight. He outlined a series of four reforms in an effort to provide more transparency and better safeguards. Judy Woodruff offers excerpts from the president's remarks.
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JUDY WOODRUFF:  President Obama pledged new oversight of government surveillance programs today, but said the intelligence gathering is legitimate and will continue. His comments came in the first full-scale news conference since April, lasting nearly an hour in the East Room of the White House.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The president followed those remarks by outlining four steps his administration would take to provide more safeguards and greater transparency around the government’s surveillance activities.

They included working with Congress to reform the Patriot Act’s Section 215, the law that allows the government to collect phone metadata, adding a privacy representative to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, releasing the legal rationale for collection of data, and appointing an NSA representative committed to privacy, and inviting outside experts to review how the government does its surveillance.

The measures come as the administration has faced mounting scrutiny over its intelligence gathering programs following the leaks from former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Mr. Obama was asked if thinking about today’s moves reflected a change in his mind-set about Snowden.

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QUESTION: Is he now more whistle-blower than he is a “hacker,” as you called him at one point, or somebody that should be filed charges? And should he be provided more protection? Is he a patriot?

BARACK OBAMA: No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. As I said in my opening remarks, I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks. My preference, and I think the American people’s preference, would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws; a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place, because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place, somehow didn’t require potentially some additional reforms.

That’s exactly what I called for. And a general impression has I think taken hold not only among the American public, but also around the world, that somehow we’re out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it. But that’s not the case.

Our laws specifically prohibit us from surveilling U.S. persons without a warrant. And there are a whole range of safeguards that have been put in place to make sure that that basic principle is abided by.

But — but what is clear is that whether because of the instinctive bias of the intelligence community to keep everything very close, and probably what’s a fair criticism, is my assumption that if we have checks and balances from the courts and Congress, that that traditional system of checks and balances would be enough to give people assurance that these programs will run properly.

You know, that assumption, I think, proved to be undermined by what happened after the leaks. I think people have questions about this program.

And there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid, passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through, and I had sat down with Congress, and we had worked this thing through. It would have been less exciting; it would not have generated as much press.

I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The president was also asked about threats by some congressional Republicans to shut down the government unless funding for the health care law is eliminated.

BARACK OBAMA: They used to say they had a replacement. That never actually arrived, right?

I have been hearing about this whole replace thing for two years. Now I just doesn’t hear about it, because basically they don’t have an agenda to provide health insurance to people at affordable rates.

And the idea that you would shut down the government at a time when the recovery is getting some traction, where we’re growing, although not as fast as we need to, where the housing market is recovering, although not as fast as we would like, that we would precipitate another crisis here in Washington that no economist thinks is a good idea.

I’m assuming that they will not take that path. I have confidence that common sense in the end will prevail.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The president also fielded questions on his upcoming decision to appoint a new Federal Reserve chairman this fall, saying it was one of the most important decisions that remained in his presidency. And he also urged House Republicans to move forward with an immigration reform bill once members return from their summer recess.