The disclosures from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden have created a “distorted view” of U.S. surveillance and intelligence compared to the rest of the world, President Obama said Friday.
Obama said at a press conference that other countries have been able to claim the high ground on surveillance, when they conduct the same activities that Snowden says he wants to root out.
“That’s a pretty distorted view what’s going on out there,” he said.
Obama argued the United States could have had a public debate about NSA spying without the damage Snowden’s disclosures have had on U.S. intelligence capabilities.
“I’ve said before I believe this is an important conversation we needed to have,” Obama said. “I’ve also said before that the way in which these disclosures happened have been damaging to the United States, damaging to our intelligence capabilities. And I think that there was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage.”
The president declined to weigh in on whether Snowden, the former NSA contractor who received temporary asylum in Russia, should be granted amnesty in the United States.
A senior NSA official said last week amnesty should be considered if Snowden returns the classified documents he took from the NSA’s servers.
Obama said he should not say whether Snowden should receive amnesty because Snowden has been charged with a crime and is wanted by U.S. authorities.
The president also staunchly defended the work of the NSA, arguing the intelligence it collects is critical for national security.
"We need this intelligence. We can't unilaterally disarm," he said.
A review panel formed by Obama released a report this week calling for major restrictions on the NSA, including changes to its bulk collection of U.S. phone records. Under the group's plan, private companies would hold the phone records and the NSA could obtain access with orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Obama said he is studying the recommendations and will announce which of them he supports in January.
He expressed interest in the proposal to have the NSA give up its vast database of phone records, but his comments also hinted at instituting a requirement for private companies to maintain the database. Any mandate for data retention would prompt fierce opposition from privacy groups.
"It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is required to keep people safe can be obtained by having the private phone companies keep these records longer and to create some mechanism where they can be accessed in an effective fashion," Obama said.