World Obama touts NSA surveillance reforms to quell growing unease over programs

is there any justification for the NSA's action? even in the name of security.

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Barack Obama announced the first public
review of US surveillance programs since 9/11
on Friday, in what amounts to the president's
first concession that the mounting public
concern in response to disclosures by
whistleblower Edward Snowden justifies
reform.
After weeks in which the Obama and senior
intelligence officials have insisted that the
privacy of US citizens was sufficiently
protected, the president announced a series of
measures aimed at containing the controversy
prompted by the Guardian's revelations.
At a White House press conference – his first
full question-and-answer session in three
months – Obama said that revelations about
the National Security Agency's activities had
led Americans to question their trust in
government and damaged the country's
reputation abroad. But he made it clear that
the programs themselves would remain in
place.
Announcing that a panel of independent
figures would "review our entire intelligence
and communications technologies", reporting
before the end of the year, Obama said: "We
need new thinking for a new era."
In an apparent reference to the series of
disclosures by the Guardian over the last two
months , the president said the "drip by drip"
cascade of stories based on documents
provided by Snowden had "changed the
environment" and impacted public
perceptions.
"It is not enough for me as president to have
confidence in these programs. The American
people need to have confidence in them as
well," he said.
Obama began his press conference by
announcing what he described as "four specific
steps" designed to reassure the public and
improve the US's reputation abroad. The
proposals included a commitment to work with
Congress to "pursue appropriate reforms" to
Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been
used to authorise the bulk collection of millions
of US phone records.
He said he would work with legislators to
revamp the secretive foreign intelligence
surveillance (Fisa) court, which grants the NSA
legal authorization for its mass collection, to
make it more adverserial. Obama conceded the
court worked on the basis of biased
proceedings which "only hear one side of the
story" and "may tilt it too far in favour of
security, may not pay enough attention to
liberty".
Obama's suggestion that "privacy advocates"
would be introduced to some Fisa court
proceedings was not unexpected. Three
senators, Richard Blumenthal, Mark Udall and
Ron Wyden, last week introduced a bill to
create such an advocate – a proposal that
appears to have wide support.
Nothing Obama announced is likely to
materially alter the NSA's ongoing mass
collection of phone data and surveillance of
internet communications in the short term.
Neither did the president exhibit much
appetite for significantly altering the
surveillance capabilities of the US intelligence
community, saying at one point the aim might
be to "jigger slightly" the balance between the
intelligence and "the incremental
encroachment on privacy".
But the announcement, made shortly before
the president departed for his vacation,
represents a significant climbdown for the
White House, which for two months has
maintained that it has struck the right balance
between privacy and security.
Democratic senator Ron Wyden, a leading critic
of the NSA's bulk surveillance powers in the
Senate, welcomed Obama's proposals, but
called for greater detail. "Notably absent from
President Obama's speech was any mention of
closing the backdoor searches loophole that
potentially allows for the warrantless searches
of Americans' phone calls and emails under
section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act," Wyden said.
The senator was referring to a disclosure in the
Guardian based on a top-secret document
which indicates the NSA has a secret backdoor
into its databases under a legal authority
enabling it to search for US citizens' email and
phone calls without a warrant.
The document, published on Friday three
hours before Obama's announcement,
contrasts with assurances that president and
senior intelligence officials have previously
given that the privacy of US citizens is
protected from dragnet surveillance programs
targeted at foreigners. "I believe that this
provision requires significant reforms as well
and I will continue to fight to close that
loophole," Wyden said.
Obama acknowledged that Snowden's
disclosures had triggered a public debate, but
insisted the whistleblower was "not a patriot"
and claimed that the reforms might have been
implemented if the leaks had not happened.
"There is no doubt that Mr Snowden's leaks
triggered a much more rapid and passionate
response than would have been the case if I
had simply appointed this review board, if I
had sat down with Congress [and] worked this
thing through," he said.
Throughout his press conference, Obama said
there was no evidence that the intelligence
agencies had "abused" their powers, insisting
he was instead addressing a problem of public
perceptions.
"If you are outside of the intelligence
community, if you are the ordinary person, and
you start to see a bunch of headlines saying
'US, Big Brother, looking down on you,
collecting telephone records, etc', well,
understandably people would be concerned,"
he said. "I would be too, if I wasn't inside the
government."
Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the
American Civil Liberties Union, took issue with
the president's stance. "The intelligence
agencies say you can't point to instances of
abused authority," he said. "The fact that the
government is collecting all this information is
itself a form of abuse. But even if you take their
narrow definition of abuse, we don't have the
information to evaluate that. It's all secret."
The chairwoman of the Senate intelligence
committee, Dianne Feinstein, who has
defended the NSA, said the review announced
by the president would be the "primary order
of business" for the committee after the
summer.
Like Obama, she framed the review as a
measure that would address public sensibilities
rather than in any way rein back NSA
surveillance. "To the extent possible, I hope
these hearings will better delineate the
purpose and scope of these programs and
increase the public's confidence in their
effectiveness," she said.
In his remarks, Obama said the White House
was having to respond to a "changed
environment" where disclosures being released
"drip by drip, you know, one a week, to kind of
maximise attention, and see if they can catch
us on some imprecision on something".
He said: "In light of that, it makes sense to go
ahead, lay out what exactly we are doing, have
a discussion with Congress, have a discussion
with industry, which is also impacted by this,
have a discussion with civil libertarians, and
see if we can do this better."
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