WASHINGTON — Responding to critics, President Barack Obama promised on Friday to work with Congress on “appropriate reforms” for the domestic surveillance programs that have stirred criticism at home and abroad. He also said it is time to recalibrate the United States’ relationship with Russia, which is harboring NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden.
“It’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs,” the president declared of NSA domestic intelligence-gathering programs at a White House news conference, one day before his scheduled departure on a weeklong vacation. “The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”
The president announced a series of changes in a program begun under the anti-terror Patriot Act that was passed in the wake of the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001. But none of the moves would alter the basic core of the program, the collection of millions of Americans’ phone records.
As for Snowden, recently granted temporary asylum by Russia, Obama said he is not a patriot, as some have suggested, and challenged him to return to the United States to face espionage charges.
On Russia, Obama said that given recent differences over Syria, human rights and Snowden, it is “probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going … and recalibrate the relationship.”
The hour-long news conference ranged over numerous issues, although the president became especially animated when the questions turned to Republicans in Congress. He said they would risk the wrath of the public if they vote to shut down the government this fall in an attempt to cut off funding for his signature health care law.
And on another congressional issue, he said that while he was open to House Republicans proposing an alternative immigration bill, his preference was for a vote on a Senate-passed measure that would combine border security with a chance at citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
He said he was “absolutely certain” such a bill would pass in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
He did not mince words about the United States’ deteriorating relationship with Russia. He said President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to grant asylum to Snowden was merely the latest in a series of differences between the two countries, including a response to the Syrian civil war and to human rights issues.
“I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to look forward rather than backward,” Obama said, evoking memories of relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The president, who just this week canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin, said he does not want the United States to boycott the upcoming 2014 Olympics scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, as a protest against Russian treatment of homosexuals.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we’re seeing here,” he said. “And if Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker.”
On the U.S. economy, Obama said he has a range of candidates he is considering to become chairman of the Federal Reserve, a nomination he likened in importance to selecting a Supreme Court justice. Among the contenders are former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Janet Yellen, the vice chair of the Fed, he said, adding that whoever replaces Ben Bernanke must focus his attention on keeping inflation in check and helping strengthen the recovery from the worst recession in decades.
While saying he won’t pick a Fed chairman until the fall, he expressed irritation at critics of Summers, including some Democrats in Congress, whom Obama said were engaging in “a standard Washington exercise that I don’t like” of launching pre-emptive attacks before an appointment has been made.
The president and his family are due to depart the White House on Saturday for a weeklong vacation at Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts.
It was Obama’s first full-blown White House news conference since April, and both his opening statement about surveillance programs and the questions that followed underscored the constantly shifting mix of issues in the nation’s summertime capital.
Chief among them was the topic of surveillance, a subject the administration has struggled with since Snowden’s leaks triggered a vigorous public debate about the proper balance between government intelligence-gathering programs designed to combat terrorism and individual liberties enshrined in the Constitution.
In his remarks, the president gave no indication he was prepared to change the core of one of the most controversial programs, an effort to collect and store identifying information about virtually all the phone calls made in the United States.
There was quick reaction from lawmakers.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying he would “carefully examine the materials released today and will continue to press for greater transparency, including the release of significant FISA Court opinions.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgian and senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said, “I believe there is a consensus among my colleagues that any modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be made on a strong bipartisan basis and must not impede the intelligence community’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks.”
Obama announced relatively modest changes, including one to 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. Under current law, prosecutors now make their legal case without opposing argument, subject only to a ruling by a judge.
Obama is creating an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers, although it is unclear how that differs from the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an existing panel mandated by Congress, to monitor surveillance systems and constitutional considerations.
Obama said the NSA would hire a privacy officer and that intelligence agencies would build a website explaining their mission.
As Obama spoke, the Justice Department released what Obama called “the legal rationale” for the surveillance. The document appeared to be primarily a recitation of what the administration has previously told Congress.
On another subject the president declined to confirm a series of drone strikes recently reported carried out in Yemen to deter a suspected terrorist plot.
At the same time, he said the United States was making progress toward arresting the killers of four Americans who perished last year in a terrorist attack at a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. “We are intent on capturing those who carried out this attack. And we’re going to stay on it until we get them,” he said.