Obama on defense over NSA

The White House was put further on defense over the National Security Agency on Tuesday as executives of the nation’s largest technology companies confronted President Obama over the agency’s spying program.

The meeting, which included executives from Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo, followed a court ruling a day earlier that said the agency had violated the constitutional rights of millions of Americans. 

ADVERTISEMENT
The White House touted the meeting as an opportunity to discuss improvements to the troubled healthcare exchange website, but the technology companies emphasized that they personally urged Obama to rein in the NSA. 

“We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform,” the companies said in a joint statement issued after the executives left the meeting in the Roosevelt Room.

The companies that met with Obama are lobbying the administration and Capitol Hill to limit the NSA’s powers in the wake of the revelations by Edward Snowden. They warn that the surveillance is undermining trust in their services and hurting both their bottom lines and the U.S. economy.

The White House said in a statement that the meeting was an “opportunity” for Obama to “hear from CEOs directly” on their concerns about the intelligence programs.

“The president made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative Internet and listened to the group’s concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs,” the White House said.

The meeting included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. White House press secretary Jay Carney described the gathering as “a pretty impressive group of individuals.”

The movement to restrain the NSA received a major boost Monday when a federal judge ruled that the agency’s collection of records on all U.S. phone calls is likely an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. 

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon won’t have any immediate legal effect — he put his order on hold pending an expected appeal by the government. But it has given NSA critics a powerful new argument in their campaign to crack down on the agency.

Defenders of the NSA have argued for months that the agency’s controversial phone record collection is legal and that no court has ruled otherwise. But Monday’s decision undercuts that argument and casts doubt on whether the NSA has been following the law. 

“I think it greatly bolsters the concern about constitutionality,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of legislation to curb the NSA’s power, told The Hill.

“Clearly, secrecy is the only reason bulk collection is able to survive. As soon as effective court review and some transparency was applied to this program, it could not stand constitutional muster.”

He said Leon’s opinion is so “strong that it undermines the legal credibility of the NSA.”

“In effect, it says legally the emperor has no clothes,” Blumenthal said.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said the judge’s ruling will “add to the growing momentum” behind his USA Freedom Act, which would end the NSA’s bulk collection of phone records, limit other surveillance powers and tighten oversight.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime critic of the NSA, told reporters that the ruling is a “real wakeup call” for political leaders. 

“In effect, these changing technologies make it clear you’ve got to change the laws, or otherwise the liberties of our citizens are at risk, and also the well being of our companies,” Wyden said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and one of the most vocal supporters of the NSA, pointed to a separate court ruling in California last month that upheld the legality of the program.

She said the government will appeal Monday’s court ruling and she hopes the Supreme Court ultimately settles the issue.

“If people really want us to shove aside a potential method of protection, and the court says it is not constitutional, that’s it. That does it,” Feinstein said in an interview on MSNBC. 

“None of us will defy the constitutionality issue. But what many of us want to do is do what’s necessary within the law to keep our nation as safe as we possibly can.”

Justin Sink and Jeremy Herb contributed.

This story was updated at 9:13 p.m.