Obama Calls For Transparency In Surveillance Operations

In a wide-ranging news conference before summer vacation, President Obama touched on domestic budget disputes, the next Federal Reserve chairman and immigration reform. But the key issue was national security, and how to strike the proper balance between safety and privacy.

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At the White House today, on the eve of his vacation, President Obama stepped up to the microphones for his first solo press conference since April. Sometimes joking, sometimes defiant, the president hit on a wide range of issues - relations with Russia, health care. But the president put one issue front and center, balancing the government's need to gather intelligence while protecting American civil liberties.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

CORNISH: We'll check in with our regular Friday political commentators in a few minutes. But first, to NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro. Hey there, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: Let's start with national security. The president announced four steps that he says the administration plans to take when it comes to the government's surveillance activity.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, some striking things here. Perhaps the most significant is that he says he's going to work with Congress to reform the Patriot Act. And one of the things he wants to do is when you look at this court called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, he said, you know, he believes the court works, but he thinks people have some legitimate concerns about it. Here's part of what he said.

OBAMA: 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 and they tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty.

SHAPIRO: So he says he's going to work with Congress to try to get another advocate in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court who is explicitly advocating for the interests of civil liberties and privacy. In addition, the National Security Agency is going to create a new position exclusively for somebody looking up privacy and civil liberties issues. The president said there's going to be a new external oversight board for some of these issues.

He asked the Justice Department to declassify the legal rationale for some of these spying activities. Now, he's not going to stop any of the activities that have come under so much criticism, but these are real changes that come out as a direct result of the leak of Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor who revealed some of these programs.

And so the president was asked, you know, does this mean that Edward Snowden was a patriot, that he's spurring these changes? The president said, no, these changes were underway anyway. Maybe they wouldn't have been done in as spectacular and public a way with as much attention as Snowden called to them. But he also said that he believes that Snowden caused real harm and should stand trial for it.

CORNISH: And related to Snowden news, the president also addressed the cancellation of a planned one-on-one summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

SHAPIRO: That's right. And he said that this was not just about Snowden. He said there was a whole series of issues that the U.S. and Russia seem to be growing farther and farther apart on, ranging from Iran to Syria, to gay rights.

OBAMA: I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward, as opposed to backwards, on those issues with mixed success.

SHAPIRO: And you could really sense the president's frustration as he talked about Putin in this part of the press conference. He described his slouching posture looking like a bored kid in the back of class. He talked about...

CORNISH: He's referring to Putin this way.

SHAPIRO: Referring to Putin, yeah. This sort of like you poke me and I'll poke you attitude. He also volunteered that he does not think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics in response to Russia's laws about gay rights and gay activists. He said nobody is more offended than me at these kinds of laws, but he said he would like nothing better than to see gay American athletes taking home the gold, silver and bronze. And he said if Russia doesn't have gay athletes openly competing on their teams, they're probably going to be worse off for it.

CORNISH: Now, also in foreign policy, the president spoke to recent terror threats, which closed American embassies throughout the Middle East.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, he's come under some criticism for saying the core of al-Qaida is dismantled even as State Departments around the world closed. But he said it is entirely consistent to say that the core al-Qaida can no longer wage spectacular attacks like 9/11, but there are still affiliate groups, like al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, that can, as he put it, drive a truck bomb up to an embassy and blow it up.

CORNISH: And, of course, on the domestic front, health care came up, as it inevitably does.

SHAPIRO: Health care and immigration, both of which sort of point to his ongoing tensions with Republicans. Republicans have threatened to shut down the government if the funding for the health care program does not get pulled. They're also holding up the immigration law in the House that overwhelmingly passed the Senate, another area where the president just expressed real frustration, saying what this city should be looking at is how to help the American people, how to boost the middle class, how to grow the economy, not this gridlock that we've just seen so much of for the last four or five years.

CORNISH: That's NPR's White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

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