WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama made clear Friday that he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of phone records from millions of Americans, but he promised “appropriate reforms” to how such surveillance is carried out.
In an afternoon news conference, the president acknowledged the domestic spying has troubled Americans and hurt the country’s image abroad. But Obama blamed the damage on misinformation stemming from leaks to the news media.
“Understandably, people would be concerned,” the president said. “I would be, too, if I weren’t inside the government.”
But he assured Americans that the surveillance is not being abused, and he described the phone program as “an important tool” that keeps America safe.
“It’s not enough for me to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said. “The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”
Every day, the National Security Agency sweeps up the phone records of all Americans. The program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after 9/11. The NSA says phone records are the only things it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility that it could create similar databases of people’s credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
The changes Obama endorsed include: formation of an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers; assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency; and the creation of an independent attorney to argue against the government before the nation’s surveillance court.
All those new officials would carry out most of their duties in secret.
Obama’s news conference comes at the end of a summer that forced the administration into an unexpected debate over domestic surveillance. The debate began when former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that store years of phone records on every American.
That revelation prompted the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after 9/11 attacks.
Obama has found Congress surprisingly hostile to those powers since they were made public. The telephone program narrowly survived a 217-205 vote in the House to dismantle it. An unusual coalition of libertarian-leaning conservatives and liberal Democrats pose a challenge to Obama, who has aligned himself with establishment Republicans and Congress’ pro-security lawmakers.
The administration says it only looks at the phone records when investigating suspected terrorists. But testimony before Congress revealed how easy it is for Americans with no connection to terrorism to unwittingly have their calling patterns analyzed by the government.
When the NSA identifies a suspect, it can conduct three “hops.” That means analysts can look not just at the suspect’s phone records, but also at the records of everyone he calls, everyone who calls those people and everyone who calls those people.
If the average person called 40 unique people, three-hop analysis would allow the government to mine the records of 2.5 million Americans when investigating one suspected terrorist.
Obama laments ‘backward’ Russian thinking
MATTHEW LEE,AP Diplomatic Writer
President Barack Obama said Friday he was reassessing the relationship with Russia because of a growing number of issues on which the two countries differ, and he lamented what he called his mixed success in trying to convince Russian leader Vladimir Putin to abandon a Cold War mentality.
At a news conference while senior officials from the U.S. and Russia put a brave face on badly strained relations between Washington and Moscow, Obama said Putin’s return to the Kremlin last year had brought about “more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia.”
“I’ve encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success,” he told reporters two days after cancelling a planned September summit with Putin. The cancellation was a rare and pointed diplomatic snub over U.S. unhappiness with Russia granting asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, a move that exacerbated already deep differences between Washington and Moscow on other matters.
“I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we’ve seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues where, you know, it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States and, hopefully, good for Russia,” Obama said.
He added that no one could hope for 100 percent agreement and that differences could not be completely disguised. But he said U.S.-Russian cooperation is important.
“We’re going to assess where the relationship can advance U.S. interests and increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world,” Obama said. “Where it can, we’re going to keep on working with them, where we have differences, we’re going to say so clearly. And my hope is that, over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together, we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples.”
Obama’s comments came shortly after Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wrapped up talks with their Russian counterparts that were intended to try to repair some of the damage caused by the differences.
Kerry allowed that U.S.-Russia ties had been complicated by “the occasional collision” and “challenging moments.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also acknowledged the fractious state of the relationship but called on both sides to act like “grown-ups,” saying that’s how Moscow wants to handle the differences.
Both men maintained that U.S-Russian cooperation on even limited areas of shared concern is important.
“The relationship between the United States and Russia is, needless to say, a very important relationship, and it is marked by both shared interests and, at times, colliding and conflicting interests and, I think, we are all very clear-eyed about that,” Kerry said.
Noting that he and Lavrov are both former ice hockey players, Kerry said that they understood “that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision, so we’re candid, very candid, about the areas in which we agree but also the areas in which we disagree.”
“It’s no secret that we have experienced some challenging moments and obviously not just over the Snowden case,” he said. “We will discuss these differences today, for certain, but this meeting remains important above and beyond the collisions and moments of disagreement.”
Russia has minced no words in expressing its disappointment that Obama cancelled the summit, and Lavrov made it clear that Moscow had been prepared to sign agreements on trade and nuclear research and security had it gone ahead.
“At least we in Russia were prepared to table our proposals to the two presidents,” Lavrov said.
“Of course, we have disagreements. We’ll continue discussing matters on which we disagree calmly and candidly,” he said. “We need to work as grown-ups. And this is what we do. And we hope that this will be reciprocal.”
U.S.-Russia discord had been simmering since Putin regained the Russian presidency more than a year ago.
On returning to power, he adopted a deeply nationalistic and more openly confrontational stance toward the United States than the man he had chosen to succeed him as president in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, whose tenure roughly overlapped Obama’s first term in the White House.
The U.S. is upset about Moscow’s backing of President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war. The two nations also have been at odds over Russia’s domestic crackdown on civil rights, a U.S. missile defense plan for Europe, trade, global security, human rights and American adoptions of Russian children.
Associated Press writer Tom Raum contributed to this report.
Obama says he has range of candidates to lead Fed
President Barack Obama says he has a range of outstanding candidates to lead the Federal Reserve and calls Lawrence Summers and Janet Yellen highly qualified to become the next Fed chairman.
Obama says in a White House news conference that he decided to push back against people who are urging him not to pick Summers because he saw his former economic adviser, in his words, “getting slapped around the press for no reason.”
Summers served as the head of the National Economic Council during Obama’s first term. Yellen is the vice chair of the Fed.
Obama says he will decide in the fall whom to nominate to succeed the Fed’s outgoing chairman, Ben Bernanke.