Obama: Phone Spying To Stay

WASHINGTON (AP) – 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 press 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 press 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 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 now believes they are useful and lawful.

To try to allay concerns, Obama endorsed modest oversight changes to a program he says already has plenty. None of them significantly changes the programs, and the president acknowledged they were intended to appease Americans, not to curtail spying.

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.