We will have an official website about the NSA programs of surveillance, announced the president of the US, Barack Obama, in a press conference Friday. “The intelligence community is creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency, and this will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn’t do, how it carries out its mission, and why it does so”, he said. It’s an effort for “transparency” about a spying environment, that for definition is not transparent.
He explained that while facing threats he has to “strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms. And as part of this rebalancing”, he added, “I called for a review of our surveillance programs. Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate, but not always fully informed way.” What we don’t know is if without the leaks the public debate would be ever initiated.
He explained his point of view about the surveillance programs and how to control them to “prevent abuse.” Finally he said that people who work in intelligence are patriots and people who “lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots”, and called for a vigorous public debate guided by the Constitution to resolve the differences.
Answering a question about Edward Snowden, Obama said the former NSA contractor had other options before going to the press with secret information about the surveillance programs. He said:
“So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies. If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the 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 somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.”
“But having said that, once the leaks have happened, what we’ve seen is information come out in dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways. Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct the record. But by that time, it’s too late or we’ve moved on, 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”.
“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 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 had 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 were run probably — that assumption I think proved to be undermined by what happened after the leaks. I think people have questions about this program.”
“And so, as a consequence, I think it is important for us to go ahead and answer these questions. What I’m going to be pushing the IC to do is rather than have a trunk come out here and leg come out there and a tail come out there, let’s just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they’re looking at. Let’s examine what is working, what’s not, are there additional protections that can be put in place, and let’s move forward”.
“And there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and 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.”
Here the full text of the president’s initial remarks:
“Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about what I believe should be our number-one priority as a country — building a better bargain for the middle class and for Americans who want to work their way into the middle class. At the same time, I’m focused on my number-one responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, and that’s keeping the American people safe. And in recent days, we’ve been reminded once again about the threats to our nation.
As I said at the National Defense University back in May, in meeting those threats we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms. And as part of this rebalancing, I called for a review of our surveillance programs. Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate, but not always fully informed way.
Now, keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs, and as President, I’ve taken steps to make sure they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance — particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.
I’m also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas, because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness — because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it — with open debate and democratic process.
In other words, 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. And that’s why, over the last few weeks, I’ve consulted members of Congress who come at this issue from many different perspectives. I’ve asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension, and I directed my national security team to be more transparent and to pursue reforms of our laws and practices.
And so, today, I’d like to discuss four specific steps — not all inclusive, but some specific steps that we’re going to be taking very shortly to move the debate forward.
First, I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act — the program that collects telephone records. As I’ve said, this program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots. And it does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant. But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse. So after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.
For instance, we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority. So I look forward to working with Congress to meet those objectives.
Second, I’ll work with Congress to improve the public’s confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISC. The FISC was created by Congress to provide judicial review of certain intelligence activities so that a federal judge must find that our actions are consistent with the Constitution. However, to build greater confidence, I think we should consider some additional changes to the FISC.
One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story — may tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty. And while I’ve got confidence in the court and I think they’ve done a fine job, I think we can provide greater assurances that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives — security and privacy.
So, specifically, we can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice in appropriate cases by ensuring that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary.
Number three, we can, and must, be more transparent. So I’ve directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible. We’ve already declassified unprecedented information about the NSA, but we can go further. So at my direction, the Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the government’s collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The NSA is taking steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and released information that details its mission, authorities, and oversight. And finally, the intelligence community is creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency, and this will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn’t do, how it carries out its mission, and why it does so.
Fourth, we’re forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking for a new era. We now have to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle in the haystack of global telecommunications. And meanwhile, technology has given governments — including our own — unprecedented capability to monitor communications.
So I am tasking this independent group to step back and review our capabilities — particularly our surveillance technologies. And they’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy — particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public. And they will provide an interim report in 60 days and a final report by the end of this year, so that we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.
So all these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values. And to others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused, above all, on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people, and — in many cases — protect our allies.
It’s true we have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do, refuse to show — and that includes, by the way, some of America’s most vocal critics. We shouldn’t forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online.
And let me close with one additional thought. The men and women of our intelligence community work every single day to keep us safe because they love this country and believe in our values. They’re patriots. And I believe that those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live up to our highest ideals. So this is how we’re going to resolve our differences in the United States — through vigorous public debate, guided by our Constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws, and with respect for the facts.”