Forced by recent leaks to respond to criticism that the government is exploiting legal loopholes to conduct widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens, President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged today that the government needs to be more transparent about its surveillance activities. Obama promised a broad review of the programs to determine what changes Congress needs to make to the Patriot Act to protect privacy and civil liberties.

Obama said that while he is confident the government is not currently abusing its legal powers with the surveillance programs, “given the history of abuse by government, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.”

Obama denied that the move for reform was motivated by recent leaks to the press from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and said that the review and changes were in place before the leaks occurred and would have happened anyway.

“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,” he said. “It would have been less exciting, it would not have generated this much press. [But] I actually think it would have got to the same place and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security.”

Obama had called for a review of the programs in April, before the Guardian newspaper began publishing the first leaks from Snowden. But the review was a secretive closed-door process. Snowden’s leaks have forced the issues into the spotlight and ensured that the public has been able to voice its concerns and anger over the programs and pressure Congress to fully engage in ways they have failed to do until now.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Obama laid out four areas for reform that included working with Congress to determine what changes need to be made to increase oversight of the Patriot Act, particularly Section 215 of the law that the government has been using for widespread collection of phone records of U.S. citizens. The existence of the phone records collection program was first reported by USA Today in 2006, though phone companies had denied it at the time. Documents leaked by Snowden to the Guardian detailed the extent to which the government was collecting, storing and using the records.

“This program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots,” Obama said, “[but] given the scale of those programs, I understand the concerns of those who worry that it could be subject to abuse.”

Obama also called for a review of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court procedures to determine how they can be more adversarial so that judges reviewing government requests for surveillance are forced to consider privacy and civil liberties with the same weight they now consider security concerns.

Critics say the secret court is a rubber stamp, since judges hear only one-sided arguments from the government about why they should approve surveillance requests, and that the court rarely rejects any requests for surveillance or engages in followup oversight to determine that the surveillance has actually been executed in a manner that comports to the law and protects civil liberties.

Obama said he had called for the creation of a privacy and civil liberties task force that will produce an initial report within 60 days and a full report by the end of the year.

The American Civil Liberties Union was unimpressed with the president’s statements about reform, saying they didn’t go far enough.

“While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. “The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records is only one of several troubling programs disclosed over the last two months. The president must work with members of Congress to reform all of these surveillance programs, including those authorized by Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, which collect, monitor and retain the contents of Americans’ communications without a warrant. We also urge the president to release the relevant FISA Court opinions and agency memos that have created a body of secret law that is far removed from public oversight and adequate congressional review. We must ensure that the government’s surveillance programs once again adhere to the protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment.”

View Source