Obama asks Congress to improve oversight on NSA surveillance

President Obama on Friday unveiled a sweeping response to privacy concerns raised by revelations of massive National Security Agency surveillance programs.

The effort is intended to stem the controversy over the size and scope of the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, a former government contractor wanted for espionage and granted asylum by Russia.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs," Obama said at a press conference where he announced the changes. "The American people need to have confidence in them as well."

Obama will ask Congress to narrow and improve oversight of Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to collect phone records, and to carve out a role for civil libertarians in courts that give government agencies the warrants to grab data from private citizens and companies.

The president has repeatedly expressed confidence that the NSA programs straddle the correct line between protecting privacy and keeping Americans safe from terrorist groups, but the changes suggest the White House saw some political problems.

"Given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who worry that it could lead to abuse," Obama said. 

“America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” Obama said at a press conference where he announced the changes.

Last month, the House nearly passed an amendment backed by members of both parties to curtail the NSA's Section 215 powers. The legislation by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) fell seven votes short despite lobbing by the White House and congressional leaders in both parties.

“It’s true we have significant capabilities,” Obama said in a message he said he meant to direct to the U.S. and foreign audiences upset by the NSA's actions. 

He then said it was also true that the U.S. government shows restraint in what it uses, before offering a defense of U.S. intelligence agency workers as "patriots."

A senior administration official briefing reporters on the announcement called the new proposals a “vehicle for building public confidence.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for changes to Section 215, with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) advocating for an end to the broad collection of data entirely.

Other lawmakers, including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), have suggested allowing telecom companies, and not the NSA, to retain telephone metadata — the information on calls made between people.

It's unclear which reform efforts the White House will back, but one senior administration official said the goal would be to “build in greater oversight” and “bring greater transparency” to help “build confidence.”

Officials said that the president has also directed top intelligence officials to determine how changes would affect their work.

The president is asking Congress to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a special judicial panel tasked with approving top-secret requests for surveillance warrants that rarely turns them down.

Obama also asked Congress to reform the warranting process to allow the government's requests to be challenged by an adversary raising civil liberties concerns.

The White House said it will also give new information outlining the legal justifications for the surveillance programs, including the launch of a website to serve as a hub for intelligence disclosures. This will include a memo from the Department of Justice, to be released Friday, outlining the administration's legal rationale for the government's collection activities.

That memo is at least partially in response to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the Patriot Act. He told Attorney General Eric Holder in a June letter that he was “extremely disturbed” that the Justice Department was too broadly interpreting its powers and asked the administration to explain its rationale.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans in a Washington Post poll last month said the NSA’s surveillance of telephone calls and Internet traffic intruded on privacy rights, with nearly half saying the agency was intruding on their own personal privacy rights.

In addition to the Justice Department memo, the National Security Agency will release a short brief laying out in greater detail the authorities, controls, means and methods used by the agency. Officials said that the paper was intended to give greater perspective to how Internet surveillance programs like PRISM and XKeyscore functioned within the totality of the agency's operation, and how NSA workers were constrained by privacy safeguards.

“This is a framework that will then be supplemented over time with information about additional programs,” one administration official said, calling it a “down-payment” on further information to come. The idea, officials said, was to provide a 30,000-foot view of the agency's workings so that it could properly contextualize future releases, including the possible revelation of programs that have not already been leaked by Snowden.

“We want to have a forum where we are providing the disclosure through authorized channels," the official said, saying early reporting on some of the NSA's programs and abilities had been “sensationalized.”

Finally, Obama plans to form a high-level group of outside experts to review communications and surveillance technologies. Participants will be culled from outside the government and will be expected to produce an interim report within two months focused broadly on government surveillance and the emerging digital environment. A final report will be due by the end of the year.

The announcement comes after Obama met with top technology executives at the White House to discuss the balance between national security and privacy.

— Updated at 3:22 p.m.