First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama at the White House on Saturday. (AFP)
Washington,Aug. 10: President Obama yesterday sought to take control of the roiling debate over the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, releasing a more detailed legal justification for domestic spying and calling for more openness and scrutiny of the NSA’s programmes to reassure a sceptical public that its privacy is not being violated.
“It’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives,” Obama said, adding: “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.”
But at a time when leaks by the former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden have exposed the agency’s expansive spying both inside the US and abroad to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny, Obama showed no inclination to curtail secret surveillance efforts. Rather, he conceded only a need for greater openness and safeguards to make the public “comfortable” with them.
In meeting threats to the country, Obama said: “We have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms.”
And while he said that the programmes were valuable and that he was confident they had not been abused, he acknowledged that people “may want to jigger slightly” that balance.
Obama made his remarks at a wide-ranging news conference on the eve of his departure for a week’s vacation. He responded to questions on issues like the coming appointment of a new Federal Reserve chairman, the carrying out of his health care law, his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and the current status of al Qaida.
But he began with a lengthy statement about surveillance, and that was the focus of the nearly hour-long news conference.
Critics of the electronic spying brought to light by Snowden’s leaks said the President’s approach was insufficient.
Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that a programme that collects records of every domestic phone call — which Obama made clear he intends to keep — must be shut down.
A clear theme of Obama’s remarks was that he believed that the public’s understanding of the surveillance programmes had been distorted. He portrayed some of Snowden’s leaks as having been reported in “the most sensationalised manner possible” and parceled out to “maximise attention” in “dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways.”
The result has been misimpressions not merely among the American public, he said, but around the world — a reference to the widespread international criticism of the US over reports of its surveillance policies. “If you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying ‘US Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, etc.,’ well, understandably people would be concerned,” he said, while also addressing some of his reassurances to those abroad.
“To others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” he said. “Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies.
“It’s true we have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do.”