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President Barack Obama unveiled new efforts to increase transparency and “build greater confidence” about the government’s controversial surveillance efforts, acknowledging that the public’s trust has been shaken after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about the programs.
“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” Obama declared at a White House news conference. “The American people have to have confidence as well.”
Among other things, Obama called for the creation of an outside task force to advise his administration on how to balance civil liberties and security issues. He also said he had directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about the spying programs as possible and directed the NSA to create a website that would be a “hub” for that information.
“These steps are designed to make sure the American people can trust that our interests are aligned with our values,” Obama said.
Asked about his decision to cancel a September summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Obama admitted that Moscow’s decision to grant Snowden asylum played a role in the decision, but insisted it wasn’t the only factor. He pointed to differences on Syria and human rights and said he believed it was more helpful to “take a pause, reassess where Russia’s going” and “calibrate the relationship” before meeting with the Russian leader.
“The latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we’ve seen over the last several months,” Obama said.
Asked about his relationship with Putin, he downplayed tensions, insisting that their one-on-one meetings have been “very productive.”
“I don’t have a bad relationship with Putin,” Obama said. The conversations with Putin have been “candid” and “blunt” and “oftentimes they are constructive,” he said.
But Obama made clear he was unhappy with Russia’s decision to give haven to Snowden, telling reporters that he did not regard the former NSA contractor as a “patriot” for leaking secrets about the nation’s surveillance programs.
He repeatedly described Snowden’s actions as damaging to the country. He criticized Snowden's leaks about the NSA for having come out in incomplete “dribs and drabs” that have left a “general impression ... that somehow we are out there willy-nilly just sucking in information about everybody and doing whatever we want with it.”
“That’s not the case,” Obama insisted.
Obama argued that there were other avenues that Snowden could have taken and called for him to return to the U.S. and go to court to “make his case” that “what he did is right.”
Obama’s news conference comes ahead of what is expected to be a bruising budget battle with Congress and a possible government shutdown as Republicans again attempt to repeal Obama’s health care law by defunding it.
The president called the GOP effort to overturn Obamacare an “ideological fixation” but declined to say whether he would allow the government to be shut down over the issue — calling it a “hypothetical.”
But, he added, “the idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea.”