US President says he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of phone records from millions of Americans. President Barack Obama has announced steps meant to ease fears about the scope of secret domestic and foreign surveillance activities, saying he is confident the programmes are “not being abused” but that they must be more transparent. But he gave no indication he was ready to end the massive collection of information about Americans’ telephone calls and email at the press conference on Friday (this morning, NZT).
In his first press conference since April, Obama also explained his decision to cancel a summit meeting next month with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and said he had only “mixed” success in moving forward in resetting the relationship between the two countries.
Russia’s recent decision to grant asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was not the only reason for calling off the Putin meeting, Obama said.
He encouraged Putin to “think forward instead of backwards” on a long list of issues that will define currently strained relations in the future.
In wide-ranging comments lasting nearly an hour, Obama also said it would not be appropriate to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite Russian laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians.
The president also said he did not consider Snowden, who is charged in federal court with violations of the Espionage Act, as a whistleblower or “patriot”. He invited Snowden, if he feels what he did was legal and right, to return to the United States to defend his actions.
Addressing the issues raised by Snowden’s leaks of secret government surveillance programmes, Obama said the world needs to be convinced that US espionage does not step on their rights.
One goal of Obama’s news conference was to try to calm anger over a spying programme that has been kept secret for years and that the administration falsely denied ever existed.
The administration was releasing more information Friday about how it gathers intelligence at home and abroad, plus the legal rationale for the bulk collection of phone records without individual warrants. That programme was authorised under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the US.
The National Security Agency says phone records are the only things 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.
The changes Obama endorsed Friday include the formation of an outside advisory panel to review US surveillance powers, assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency, and the creation of an independent attorney to argue against the government before the nation’s surveillance court.
All those new positions would carry out most of their duties in secret.
The debate over national security and privacy began with the leaks by Snowden, a former government contract systems analyst, who revealed classified documents exposing NSA programmes that store years of phone records on every American.
That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after the 2001 attacks.
Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public, especially from an unusual coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats.
The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analysed by the government.
When the NSA identifies a suspect, analysts can look not just at the suspect’s phone records but also the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.
If the average person called 40 unique people, for example, analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.