On Friday, as renewed questions arose regarding American response to Al Qaeda in the Middle East as well as scandals ranging from Benghazi to the National Security Administration’s surveillance of Americans, President Obama held a rare press conference in the East Room of the White House.
Obama opened with a statement on his “better bargain for the middle class,” which he labeled the top priority for America. He said he was also working on his number one task as Commander-in-Chief, “keeping Americans safe.”
On the basis of that task, Obama ripped into national security leaks from Edward Snowden, bashing the “passionate but not always fully informed way” the debate over civil liberties was being carried out. Obama cited his history of worries about surveillance when he was in the Senate, adding, “it’s right to ask questions about surveillance.”
He said, “it’s not enough or me, as president, to have confidence in these programs. The American people have to have confidence in them as well.”
Obama then said he wanted to discuss four steps he would be taking to “move the debate forward.”
First, he said he would “work with Congress” to reform Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which collects phone records. He said “it does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant.” He said he also understood worries that it would be “subject to abuse.” He suggested “greater oversight, greater transparency, and restraints on this use of authority.”
Second, he would “work with Congress” to improve public confidence in the foreign intelligence surveillance courts. He said that he had confidence it the court, but he wanted to “take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an appropriate voice” in the process.
Third, Obama promised to be “more transparent.” He said he would make “public as much information about these programs as possible.” He said at his direction, the DOJ would make public its legal rationales under Section 215, release NSA missions and oversight information, and create a website that would “serve as a hub for further transparency.”
Fourth, Obama stated, “We’re forming a high level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies.” He stated, “We need new thinking for a new era.” He said he would be tasking the group to “review our capabilities, particularly our surveillance technologies,” and that group would figure out how to “maintain the trust of the people.”
All these steps, Obama said, would ensure that the American people could “trust” that these efforts would “align on our interests and our values.” American surveillance, he said, was not interested in “spying on ordinary people.” He said we have “significant capabilities,” but show “restraint.” He then contrasted our treatment of intelligence with that of other countries who throw people into prison based on their online communications.
He called members of the intelligence community “patriots” and also called those concerned about civil liberties “patriots.” He suggested “vigorous public debate, guided by our constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws.”
Ben Shapiro is Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013).