Obama: 4 ways to reform the surveillance state

The president proposes changes aimed at restoring "confidence" in America's spying programs

President Obama
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images )

President Obama on Friday announced during a press conference that his administration would update the government's spying policies, adding new layers of oversight and making them more transparent to assuage Americans' concerns about the nation's clandestine intelligence-gathering operations.

The announcement was the president's most concrete response to recent criticisms of the surveillance state, the scope of which was illuminated by leaked information provided by Edward Snowden, the fugitive former contractor for the National Security Agency who last week gained asylum in Russia.

The president laid out four specific proposals, which are as follows:

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Reforming the Patriot Act

The president said he would push for "appropriate reforms" to section 215 of the Patriot Act, which pertains to the collection of phone records. However, he refrained from offering specifics on just what those reforms would look like.

"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," he said.

The NSA's massive collection of phone records — including those of American citizens — has sparked an outcry from civil libertarians who say the practice is unconstitutional.

Congress would need to approve of any changes to the Patriot Act, which, given that body's inability to pass much of anything lately, may be a heavy lift.

Opening the FISA court to opposing arguments

A secretive court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act has the sole authority to sign off on federal wiretaps and other NSA snooping requests. Yet the court meets in private, and it only hears from one party: The government.

That will change, Obama said, announcing that he would work with Congress to allow an opposing side to air its arguments before the FISA court. That opposition group would be comprised of civil liberties advocates and intelligence experts, he said.

Critics have argued that the court acts as a rubber stamp on federal spy requests, in part because it does not hear any counter arguments. Though the court, established in the 1970s, was initially charged only with approving wiretaps, it has since taken on a far larger role, reviewing requests for massive spying operations that critics say entail constitutional precedents that have yet to be challenged.

Making U.S. intelligence operations more transparent

Obama said he wanted the U.S. intelligence community to declassify as much information as possible. Specifically, he said he would have the Justice Department publicly explain its rationale for collecting phone records under the Patriot Act.

He also said his administration would launch a website with details of its national security operations. In a conference call with reporters, a senior administration official described the website as "a home for citizens who are interested in learning more about our activities and declassifying efforts in responding to queries that people have about these programs."

Consulting outside experts for input on U.S. spy programs

The president said he would have his administration work with experts outside the government to review the nation's security programs and ensure they are effective without encroaching too greatly on Americans' civil liberties. Those experts could include former intelligence officials, civil libertarians, and policy analysts.

Again, Obama did not delve too deeply into specifics about how this oversight would work, saying only that it would add a new layer of review to the government's intelligence-gathering operations.

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