WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) – During his end-of-the-year press conference, President Barack Obama fielded questions regarding the scandal surrounding the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ telephone records.
In a ruling with potentially far-reaching consequences, a federal judge declared Monday that the NSA’s actions likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on unreasonable search. The ruling, filled with blistering criticism of the Obama administration’s arguments, is the first of its kind on the controversial program.
Even if NSA’s “metadata” collection of records should pass constitutional muster, the judge said, there is little evidence it has ever prevented a terrorist attack. The collection program was disclosed by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, provoking a heated national and international debate.
After the ruling, Andrew C. Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement, “We’ve seen the opinion and are studying it. We believe the program is constitutional as previous judges have found. We have no further comment at this time.”
At one point during Friday’s press conference, Obama told members of the press that the NSA was executing some of their programs based on what officials had seen and experienced following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
“One specific program, the 215 program, is the metadata, the bulk collection of phone numbers and exchanges that have taken place. That has probably gotten the most attention, at least with respect to domestic audiences,” he said. “And what I’ve said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone.”
He continued by noting “that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.”
He also addressed concerns, both domestically and internationally, regarding the necessity of NSA programs.
“The question we’re going to have to answer is: can we accomplish the same goals and progress we intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence in the fact that the NSA is doing what they are supposed to be doing?” he said.
He later added, “I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around.”
During the press conference, Obama additionally made mention of an independent panel he put together that came up with 46 recommendations after being asked “to look from top to bottom at what we’re doing and evaluate whether or not the current structures that we have and the current programs that we have are properly addressing both our continuing need to keep ourselves secure and to prevent terrorist attacks or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other threats to the homeland, and are we also making sure that we’re taking seriously rule of law and our concerns about privacy and civil liberties.”
He said that he and his administration will be assessing and discussing their proposals over the next few weeks, and that a more definitive statement on the matter will be made in January.
In regards to the prospect of granting Snowden amnesty, Obama said at another point in the press conference that he had to exercise caution in regards to how he discussed the matter. He did, however, state that it is “an important conversation that we needed to have.”
“The way in which these discussions happened [has] been damaging to the United States and damaging to our intelligence capabilities,” he said. “I think that there was a way to have this conversation without that damage.”
Despite feeling restricted in regards to how much he could disclose, Obama did cite one specific example of that damage.
“The fact of the matter is that the United States, for all our warts, is a country that abides by rule of law, that cares deeply about privacy, that cares about civil liberties, that cares about the Constitution. And as a consequence of these discussions, countries that actually do the things that [Snowden] says he’s worried about … are somehow able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it’s the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations.”
He added, “That’s a pretty distorted view of what’s going on out there.”
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