Obama Supports Some Senators' Call For NSA Reform

At his press conference on Friday, President Obama promised more transparency about the government's secret national security surveillance programs. The president expressed support for some reform efforts being considered in Congress and called for the release of more documents that explain how and why the surveillance effort works and whether it safeguards the privacy of Americans.

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President Obama is defending the NSA's surveillance activities. At a White House news conference earlier today, he said there's no evidence anyone's civil liberties are being abused.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they're not abused is because these checks are in place.

BLOCK: But the president also said he's open to additional reforms. NPR's Larry Abramson joins us now to talk about the White House proposals for possible changes to the NSA's surveillance activities. And, Larry, the president talked about four reforms in particular. What did he propose?

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Right. So going down the list, he said he would like to possibly change the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court works - that's the court that OK's many of these wiretaps that we've been hearing about - and also allow them to hear from civil liberties advocates, which would be new because they usually only hear from the government; increasing transparency so that a lot of these orders that the court is using are not secret; having a panel of outside experts look at this program, see if there aren't changes they could be making without affecting their effectiveness; and also some reforms to the program that's used to gather telephone records, which he said might be open to change.

BLOCK: The massive sweep of telephone data here in the U.S.

ABRAMSON: That's right.

BLOCK: Would those reforms, if they actually happen, satisfy people who say that these surveillance programs go too far, that they violate privacy rights?

ABRAMSON: Well, I think a lot of those critics welcome the reforms that the president suggested. They think it would be a good idea for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to hear another side. But basically, no, it doesn't satisfy them because they think these programs are dragnet fishing expeditions, that they're going through the records of people who are not under suspicion of terrorism and that that's a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

So on that most critical level, these things just stop short and really are not nearly comprehensive enough, and I don't think they're going to do much to fight back the criticism.

BLOCK: Larry, the president was asked specifically about Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents about the NSA programs. How did the president talk about him in relation to these proposed reforms that have come as a result of these leaks?

ABRAMSON: I think he tried hard not to give Snowden any credit for sparking a discussion that the president says he welcomes. He says he welcomes a discussion, but he thinks that he would have - that the country would have gotten to the same place under the president's own initiative if the Snowden leaks had not happened.

And he reminded us that this - Mr. Snowden is facing three felony charges, that the U.S. can never get its hands on him because, as we know, he's now in Russia and that this is not the way to do this. And he took credit out, actually, for advancing whistle-blower protections that would have allowed somebody, he said, somebody like Edward Snowden, to make these claims, bring up these issues without leaking classified information.

BLOCK: Larry, there is an interesting tension here. On the one hand, the president seems to be saying the programs are legal. They're crucial to national security. They're not subject to abuse. On the other hand, he says there is room for reforms. How does he have it both ways?

ABRAMSON: Well, you know, I think that the president is trying to be open to criticism without admitting that these programs are - without conceding to criticisms that these programs are not constitutional because it's something that his administration has been doing for years. And, you know, it's hard to imagine that the president of the United States would be sitting up there talking about the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for an hour if the Snowden leaks hadn't happened.

So it's a very difficult line for him to walk, and he's clearly a little bit uncomfortable about it but is trying to grab the bull by its horns and get some credit for making some changes himself.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Larry Abramson. Larry, thanks.

ABRAMSON: All right. Thank you.

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