By Tony Romm and Josh Gerstein
Caught in a political vise after stinging leaks about expansive government surveillance, President Barack Obama is ordering the government to offer new details on its collection of massive troves of data, while calling on Congress for reform and announcing new protections for Americans' civil liberties.
Obama unveiled what he called "specific steps" Friday at a news conference that came on the same day The Guardian published more information -- again furnished by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden -- suggesting the NSA can rummage through foreigners' emails to seek information about Americans.
The president said he'd work with Congress to craft legislation that would amplify oversight of the PATRIOT Act, specifically a provision interpreted to allow the collection of details of nearly every telephone call placed in the United States.
"This program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots [but] given the scale of those programs I understand the concerns of those who worry worry that it could be subject to abuse," Obama said.
Obama also publicly endorsed the idea of reforms to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which critics contend has rubber-stamped government requests to gather the call data as well as vast pools of information from foreigners' internet traffic and emails in and out of the U.S. He promised to release more comprehensive information on the NSA's authorities, while commissioning a new, outside task force to study government surveillance, new technologies and privacy.
Most of Obama's calls for reforms amounted to vague pledges to work with lawmakers who've proposed legislation. The one specific the president got behind Friday was the idea of creating a security-cleared public advocate who could appear at secret court sessions and raise questions about surveillance proposals.
"I think we can provide greater assurance that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives," Obama said.
Despite the talk of reform, the president stopped short of endorsing substantive changes to the legal provision deemed to allow the vast collection of Americans' call data on the basis that it is "relevant" to terrorism investigations. Critics have said that interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act could allow the government to scoop up data on all Americans' credit card transactions or hardware store purchases under the same rationale.
The government used the same legal provision to gather address information from Americans' e-mails until abandoning the practice two years ago under pressure from Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.)
Last month, the House of Representatives narrowly defeated an amendment that sought to block funding for the NSA call tracking program.
While the legislative effort to rein in the program drew support from both ends of the political spectrum, House Republican leaders reacted skeptically to the president's calls for reforms.
"Much of any public concern about this critical program can be attributed to the president's reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it. Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program," said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). "That must be the president's red line, and he must enforce it. Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face."
"The President's announcement today that he will pursue "reforms' to National Security Agency counterterrorism programs is a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) charged in a statement. "These programs are legal, transparent and contain the appropriate checks and balances among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of our government. These intelligence tools keep Americans safe every single day."
Soon after the surveillance programs were unveiled in June, Obama said they involved "modest encroachments" on privacy that were outweighed by the benefits the snooping provided.
However, administration officials have struggled since then to provide examples of terrorist plots averted due to the most controversial domestic call-tracking program.
The president believes "strongly that we need appropriate safeguards and oversight in place to guard against abuse," a senior administration official said. The official was one of three who -- without apparent irony -- briefed reporters on condition of anonymity about the new transparency efforts.
The official added the government has taken steps to this end "since the ensuing unauthorized disclosure that elevated the profile of these issues."
The announcements come a day after Obama huddled with Apple CEO Tim Cook and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, as well as Google's top engineer, Vint Cerf, and Gigi Sohn, the president of the consumer group Public Knowledge.
The White House did not comment on the meeting, first reported by POLITICO, and asked participants to remain mum in advance of Obama's remarks Friday. Some sources believe the participants might comprise the forthcoming, outside task force Obama will propose.
Officials only said the group would submit an initial report in 60 days, with a final document due at the end of the year.
Some of the steps Obama now is considering are already percolating on Capitol Hill. Some have proposed altering the way judges are named to the surveillance court. Still other lawmakers in both parties have pressed for release of more data about what the government collects, when and why.
To that end, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced during the president's press conference she would "undertake a major review of all intelligence data collection programs involving Americans" this fall before her Senate Intelligence Committee.
"As I have said before, if changes are necessary, whenever feasible, we will make them. 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 a statement.
Senior administration officials describe the NSA public report expected Friday as more of a "foundation," not a lengthy, detailed assessment of what the agency is doing in cyberspace.
While the official blasted the "sensationalized" reports about government surveillance -- not mentioning Snowden by name -- the official said the programs would be "supported over time with additional information."