Obama Outlines Proposals to Reform Surveillance in Rare Press Conference

On Friday afternoon, Obama held his first press conference since April. In it, he proposed increased surveillance transparency, as well as new privacy considerations at the secret surveillance court and changes to the Patriot Act. And he made clear that his opinion of Putin, Snowden, and Boehner could be higher.

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President Obama held his first press conference since April 30 on Friday afternoon. The intervening months have contained the entirety of the NSA surveillance revelations stemming from the Edward Snowden leaks — revelations that the president addressed with four new proposals.

  • Working with Congress to reform the Patriot Act's Section 215. This is the part of the 2001 law that justifies the government's sweeping collection of phone call metadata. During the press conference, the administration released a document outlining that authority; there aren't many details in it that are new.
  • Proposes adding a privacy representative to the FISA Court. While details of this proposal aren't clear, this is a big deal. Right now that secret court is presented with the government's case for getting a surveillance warrant, and no counterpoint. The addition of another representative has been mentioned by privacy groups in the past.
  • The government will release the legal rationale for collection of data, will appoint an NSA representative committed to privacy, and will unveil a website with more information.
  • The president will invite a group of outside experts to review how the government conducts its surveillance. The president returned to this idea during the question-and-answer part of the discussion. The system is "as failsafe as we've been able to think of," he said — but perhaps this independent group can come up with new ideas to better ensure privacy.

The rationale for the changes, Obama said, was that he assumed that the American people felt comfortable with the checks and balances in place on surveillance. The Snowden leaks revealed to him that they were not. He insisted that he'd called for a review of the programs at the outset of his presidency. Asked if he could understand why the American public might not trust him on privacy issues, Obama replied simply, "No. I can't." But, using an unexpected dishwashing analogy, he offered that he understood why people might want to see proof that new abuse was occurring.

He also addressed the following topics over the course of the press conference. (Read the full transcript.)

Russia and Snowden

During his opening remarks, Obama first drew the contrast with Russia, arguing that the surveillance checks were far superior to other, more aggressive country. He didn't say "Russia," but the implication was clear.

Reporters followed up. The first question dealt with the competitiveness between Russia and the United States. Obama states that the relationship has not gotten worse solely because of Putin, but that it had gotten worse. (Don't trust body language, he said of Putin, who always slouches like "a bored kid in the back of the classroom.") Obama said he opposes a boycott of the Olympics over the country's anti-gay laws, by which "nobody's more offended than me."

NBC's Chuck Todd asked if the president considered Edward Snowden a patriot. Obama says he didn't, surprising no one. He argues that he — and, he thinks, the American people — would have preferred the conversation emerge through thoughtful debate (however feasible that idea). Obama also points out that he signed whistleblower protections for intelligence workers that didn't otherwise exist. There's no doubt the leaks triggered "a much more rapid and passionate response" than if he'd appointed a review board, Obama said. That would have been "less exciting," but would have gotten to the same place — without putting security at risk.

The terror threat

Asked if the recent embassy closures undermined his claims that al Qaeda had been "decimated," Obama said it didn't. Al Qaeda has "metastasized" out of the tight-knit group that attacked on 9/11, he argued, but it is still a threat. "We are not going to eliminate terrorism," he says. It can only be weakened.

A Fox News reporter asked why the government hadn't yet arrested the attackers of the embassy at Benghazi. Obama admitted that an indictment had been filed, but pointed out "I also said we'd get bin Laden, and we didn't get him in 11 months."

Immigration reform

Obama doesn't have an answer when asked how he could further encourage the House to adopt immigration reform. (Quite understandably.) He ran though the various reasons he think it makes sense, and said that when he hears questions from Republicans about it, he simply "runs through the list of the things it does."

"I don't know a law that solves a problem 100 percent," he said in defense of its imperfections. Civil rights laws reduced discrimination, "but there's still discrimination."

He spoke with House Speaker John Boehner before the latter left on recess. Obama is confident that the Senate bill would pass the House — if Boehner brought it to the floor. By way of background, Boehner won't because he understands that only a minority of Republicans support it. That abides by an informal rule known as the "Hastert Rule."

The budget debate and Obamacare

The delays in health care reform, Obama said in response to a question, were done in consultation with businesses, not just arbitrarily. Those parts of the program that have gone into effect have been successful: seniors getting drug discounts, people getting rebates on their health insurance plans, etc.

The interesting question, Obama asked, was why the Republicans have made repeal of Obamacare a top priority. (This was the most animated he'd been during the press conference.) "They used to say they'd replace it with something better," he says. "There's no longer a pretense!" Every roll-out — a new car, a new iPad — has bumps, he says, and that's what should be expected.

And, well he's at it: "The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea." (See this article.) "I am confident," he said of the shutdown threat, "that in the end common sense will prevail."

The Chair of the Federal Reserve

Obama spoke briefly about the leading candidates to run the Federal Reserve once sitting chairman Ben Bernanke steps down. (Learn more here.) Calling both Larry Summers and Janet Yellen "highly qualified candidates," he declined to suggest which he preferred. (He did accidentally call Yellen "Mr.," though.)

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