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9 Aug, 2013 19:11

Obama announces NSA surveillance reform

Obama announces NSA surveillance reform

US President Barack Obama has unveiled new NSA measures which he says will increase transparency and build public trust in government surveillance programs.

President Obama told a packed room of journalists at the White House Friday afternoon that he will work to reform Section 215 of the Patriot Act - the provision which currently allows the federal government’s intelligence agencies to collect domestic phone data.

The President also said that he will work to increase oversight with regards to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - the secretive judicial body that authorizes the government to collect data on communications coming in and out of the United States.

We can and must be more transparent,” the President told the media.

Obama said the reform will be accompanied with the roll-out of a new website which will provide Americans and people around the world the ability to learn more about the surveillance programs. Meanwhile, the President said the US will “make public as much information about these programs as possible.”

Additionally, Obama said he is forming an outside advisory panel to review the surveillance programs, assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency and creating an independent attorney to challenge the government’s spy policies in court.

Commenting on the leaked NSA documents that sparked widespread public discussion on government surveillance practices in June, the President had harsh words for Edward Snowden and challenged the method in which he went about disclosing them.

No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Obama said. “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.”

So the fact is that Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies,” added Obama. “If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen he can come here, appear before a court with a lawyer and make his case. If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community for the first time. So there were other avenues available for someone whose conscious was stirred.”

But while the President stated that his administration will work to reform some of the programs revealed by Snowden, he also criticized the press' portrayal of Washington in the two months since the disclosures were first published.

A computer workstation bears the National Security Agency (NSA) logo inside the Threat Operations Center inside the Washington suburb of Fort Meade, Maryland (AFP Photo)

If you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person, and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, ‘US, Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, etc.,’ well, understandably people would be concerned. I would be too if I wasn’t inside the government.”

"It's not enough for me to have confidence in these programs," Obama said. "The American people have to have confidence in them as well."

But since the surveillance programs have only largely been discussed due to leaked reports, the President said that the public's perception of how the US conducts spying missions has been skewed. “Drip-by-drip” leaks, said Obama, are being used by the media “to kind of maximize attention.”

I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don’t have an interest and the people in the NSA don’t have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can prevent information ahead of time, that we’re able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that,” he said.

The question is: How do I make the American people more comfortable?” the President said. “And if I tell [first lady] Michelle that I did the dishes - now, granted, in the White House I don’t do the dishes that much—but back in the day, and she is a little skeptical, well I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it.”

I am comfortable that the program is currently not being abused,” said the President.