President Barack Obama on Friday outlined steps being taken to restore public confidence in U.S. intelligence gathering measures after leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden rocked his administration and roiled U.S. relations abroad.
It is “important to ask questions” about privacy amid leaks and other revelations about government surveillance programs that have prompted scrutiny, Obama said during an hour-long news conference in the East Room of the White House. “It’s not enough for me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people have to have confidence as well.”
Since Snowden leaked secret documents to the media, critics have called the NSA’s domestic surveillance — including a program that monitors the metadata of domestic phone calls — a government overreach. Many of those same critics have asked the Obama administration and Congress to rein in the programs.
The steps being taken, according to the president, include working with Congress to pursue appropriate improvements of the telephone data program; reforming the secret court that approves that initiative; improving transparency to provide as much information as possible to the public, including the legal rationale for government collection activities; and appointing a high-level, independent group of outside experts to review surveillance technologies.
Obama said Snowden’s actions did not constitute those of a “whistle-blower” or “patriot,” saying there were “other avenues,” through existing whistle-blower protections, the former NSA contractor could have taken instead of leaking national security surveillance information.
Snowden, who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, could “make his case in court” like other Americans, the president said.
Obama said that his decision to not go to Moscow next month for a summit was not solely related to Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Snowden.
He said the United States must “take a pause” in dealing with Russia to assess where things stand.
The president also rejected calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over Moscow’s handling of Snowden and passing of anti-gay laws.
Obama said he is “looking forward to gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold, silver or bronze medals that would go a long way to rejecting the attitudes we are seeing there.”
It had been more than three month since the president took questions from reporters in the White House briefing room, and much has transpired since then, including the recent closing embassies in Africa, the Middle East and Asia because of a heightened terror threat.
If he headed out to his Martha’s Vineyard vacation without addressing the issues, “it would be seen as a mistake,” said Candy Crowley, CNN’s chief political correspondent. “The most immediate topic, I think, on his plate, has got to be what’s going on in terms of terrorism and the closing of the embassies.”
Last week, officials shuttered 22 U.S. embassies and consulates for the day on Sunday amid fears of an al Qaeda attack. On Sunday afternoon, the State Department said it had extended embassy and consulate closures in 15 of the locations until Friday and later added four other posts to the list. The decision was seen as unprecedented from many in the diplomacy and intelligence communities.
On Friday, Obama said al Qaeda still possesses the ability to threaten U.S. embassies and businesses.
He said that “we are not going to completely eliminate terrorism” and the priority is to “weaken it and strengthen partners so it cannot pose the type of horrible threat” seen on 9/11.
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