Obama Outlines Surveillance Proposal

Aug 10, 2013
Originally published on August 11, 2013 7:43 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Scott Simon is away. President Obama has announced a series of steps designed to boost confidence that government surveillance efforts are not trampling on Americans' privacy. The president outlined the measures yesterday in a White House news conference. It's an attempt to quiet the controversy sparked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked information showing the wide reach of the government's information dragnet. Obama also addressed the growing tension with Russia, which is sheltering Snowden from felony charges. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ever since news about the government's widespread monitoring of telephone and email traffic broke two months ago, President Obama has stressed the safeguards in place to prevent government abuses, including congressional oversight and judicial review. But with each new leak raising new questions about the largely secret spying efforts, Obama now acknowledges Americans can't be expected to simply take his word for it.

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.

HORSLEY: The president's promising a panel of outside experts to review the government's spying efforts and says he wants to work with Congress on new checks and balances, including a possible privacy advocate to argue against the government when it seeks court authorization for new surveillance. Obama also directed the Justice Department and the intelligence community to be more transparent about the information that electronic spies collect and the legal rationale for doing so.

OBAMA: Rather than have a trunk come out here and a leg come out there and a tail come out there, let's just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at.

HORSLEY: Earlier this week, the president canceled a planned September summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, partly in response to Russia's decision to grant asylum to the NSA leaker, Edward Snowden. Obama says there are other factors dividing the two leaders, though he insists his personal relationship with Putin is not irreparably broken.

OBAMA: I know the press likes to focus on body language and he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is when we're in conversations together, oftentimes it's very productive.

HORSLEY: Obama also says he does not believe the U.S. should boycott next year's Olympics in Russia despite a controversial new law in that country limiting gay rights.

OBAMA: 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 kind of attitudes that we're seeing there.

HORSLEY: Reporters also quizzed the president yesterday about his choice to replace Ben Bernanke when Bernanke's term as Federal Reserve Chairman expires in January. Obama didn't tip his hand, but said whoever he chooses must respect the dual mandate of the Fed. That includes not only fighting inflation but also promoting full employment.

OBAMA: You know, if you look at the biggest challenges we have, the challenge is not inflation. The challenge is we've still got too many people out of work, too many long-term unemployed, too much slack in the economy. And we're not growing as fast as we should.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's considering several candidates for the job, including the current vice chair of the Fed, Janet Yellen, and former White House economic advisor Larry Summers. He expects to announce his nomination sometime this fall. The president also made clear he's counting the days until October 1st, when the new health insurance marketplaces set up under Obamacare are due to open. He conceded there are bound to be some glitches.

OBAMA: That's true by the way of a car company rolling out a new car. It's true of Apple rolling out the new iPad.

HORSLEY: The administration's tried to tackle some of those glitches with executive action. In a normal political environment, Obama says he'd prefer to address problems through legislation. But after dozens of House votes to repeal the health care law, he says we're not in a normal political atmosphere. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.