Obama meets with lawmakers as part of surveillance review

President Obama met Thursday with critics and defenders of the National Security Agency's surveillance program ahead of a major speech in which he is to lay out his proposals for reforms. 

Attendees at the hourlong meeting included Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who together wrote recent legislation to restrict the NSA's powers. 

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), another supporter of restrictions, also attended the meeting, as did Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), one of the NSA's most prominent defenders. 

Wyden said the meeting made it clear that Obama "and his administration are wrestling with the serious issues surrounding the disclosures of the last 6 months," according to a statement. 

"What is also clear to me is that decisions about the future of these programs are being made now and that it is a crucial time for those who believe that security and liberty are not mutually exclusive to make their voices heard."

Wyden reiterated calls for an end to the bulk collection of American data and said he would "continue to urge my colleagues and the American people to stand with the side of meaningful reform and call for the ending of invasive surveillance practices.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney just after the meeting said Obama is "far along" in his review of outside recommendations. The White House has said Obama will speak publicly about his review before the State of the Union address on Jan. 28.

“He's obviously close to the end of this review in the sense that he will be giving remarks about his conclusions and the steps forward he wants to take within the next couple of weeks,” Carney said.

Obama is currently considering 46 recommended changes put forward by a White House-convened group of privacy and intelligence experts. 

Those proposals included separating the roles of National Security Agency (NSA) Director and head of the U.S. Cyber Command, which the White House announced last year it would not do. Other recommendations — including the proposed civil liberties advocate at the federal court that approves government surveillance programs — are expected to fair better.

“There will be some, I expect, that he will want to act on or want the government to act on right away,” Carney said Thursday.

“There will be others that he may decide should not be acted on. And there may be some that would require further review.”

Obama separately met Wednesday with members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which is issuing its own report on surveillance activities in the coming weeks. White House staffers will meet with privacy groups Thursday and representatives from tech companies Friday.

Congress is considering numerous proposals to rein in surveillance activity, including Leahy and Sensenbrenner's bill, the USA Freedom Act. Congress is also considering Feinstein’s FISA Improvements Act, which would tweak but not eliminate broad surveillance programs that collect information on people.

In a statement about Thursday’s meeting, Leahy said attendees pushed for the types of reforms recommended by the review group and found in the USA Freedom Act.

“During today’s meeting, I and several others emphasized the need for meaningful changes to our government’s surveillance programs, like those outlined in the USA Freedom Act,” he said. “Minor or cosmetic changes simply will not restore Americans’ confidence.”

According to Leahy, attendees pushed Obama on ending the NSA program that collects data on virtually all American phone calls, which has become one of the most controversial aspects of the surveillance debate.

“Many of us made clear our belief that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone calls must end,” Leahy said. “This is consistent with the recommendations made by the President’s Review Group.”

“While I will continue to push for support of this bill in the Senate, the president has the power to enact many of the review group’s recommendations now,” he said.

Sensenbrenner pushed his bill Thursday, saying that the surveillance "problem cannot be solved by presidential fiat," he said in a statement. He called on Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act, "a bipartisan legislative solution closely aligned with the suggestions by the president’s panel."

"All three branches of government have said the NSA has gone too far. Even President Obama’s hand-picked panel agrees that bulk collection by the NSA has come at a high cost to privacy without improving national security," he added.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who was also in attendance, said in a statement, “it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action to reform some of our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs to ensure that they adequately protect Americans’ civil liberties and operate in a sensible manner.”

Goodlatte reiterated his call “to bring more transparency to the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering programs in order to regain the trust of the American people.”

If Obama’s review leaves the phone data program untouched, he should more clearly defend it, Goodlatte said. “If the president believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security,” he said.

“The president has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness.  This information is critical to informing Congress on how far to go in reforming the programs.”

Other attendees of Thursday's meeting with Obama included Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), as well as Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.)