WASHINGTON -- In pledging to make changes that could curtail the federal government’s ability to spy on Americans, President Barack Obama failed to address calls by lawmakers and experts to overhaul a law that allows the National Security Agency to search vast databases of individual Americans’ emails without court warrants.
Some lawmakers, technology organizations and civil liberty groups had urged Obama and his top aides to end – or at least limit – those searches at two meetings at the White House last week as the president prepared proposals to dispel criticism of the NSA surveillance programs, according to several people familiar with the sessions.
“There are a lot of questions that the government has to answer about that particular program, and it was disappointing and surprising that Obama failed to mention it” at a news conference Friday, said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which was represented at the meetings.
Instead, Obama called on Congress to change the USA Patriot Act, which increased the government’s ability to gather intelligence after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the secret court that oversees NSA surveillance programs.
Lawmakers and advocates applauded the president’s first significant comments on altering the programs, but they criticized his actions as being short on specifics and ignoring Section 702 of the 2008 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who’s proposed changes to the programs, praised Obama but said he hoped the president would provide specific ideas to Congress or at least offer input on existing legislation. “My hope is there will be more,” he said.
Obama’s remarks came amid rising public consternation over the NSA’s programs after leaks of top-secret documents by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The documents showed the NSA is collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, as well as emails through nine companies, including tech giants Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook, under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments.
Trevor Timm, a digital rights activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group, said Obama had no choice but to launch a “public relations campaign” in light of the widespread criticism. “He had to do something,” he said. “He was trying to get out of it the easiest way he can.”
Obama’s proposals came after Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and general counsel Kathy Ruemmler met Aug. 6 with a host of groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and organizations that represent Internet companies, according to people familiar with the meetings. Two days later, Obama met with the CEOs of major communications firms, including Apple, AT&T and Google, they said.
Obama and his staff also spoke to or heard from members of Congress on 35 occasions, including a meeting Aug. 1 between the president and nearly a dozen lawmakers. The White House declined to name those the administration consulted.
Many groups declined to comment on what the White House had asked to be private meetings, but others said administration officials had listened to their concerns about the Patriot Act, FISA Amendments and the secret court.