WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear Friday he has no intention of stopping the daily collection of Americans' phone records. And while he offered "appropriate reforms," he blamed government leaks for creating distrust of his domestic spying program.
In a news conference, the president acknowledged the domestic spying has troubled Americans and hurt the country's image abroad. But he called it a critical counterterrorism tool.
"I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused," Obama said. "I am comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, 'You know what? These folks are following the law.' "
Because the program remains classified, it's impossible for Americans to conduct that analysis.
"Understandably, people would be concerned," Obama said. "I would be, too, if I weren't inside the government."
After former government contract systems analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified documents exposing National Security Agency programs that monitor Internet and phone data, the debate over national security and privacy has led to the most significant reconsideration yet of the vast surveillance powers Congress granted the president after the Sept, 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Every day, the NSA sweeps up the phone records of all Americans. The program was authorized under the USA Patriot Act, which Congress hurriedly passed after the 2001 attacks. The NSA says phone records are the only information it collects in bulk under that law. But officials have left open the possibility it could create similar databases of people's credit card transactions, hotel records and Internet searches.
The speech followed a week of leaks in which government officials anonymously described a serious al-Qaida threat revealed in a phone conversation intercepted by U.S. surveillance.
Obama endorsed modest changes to the surveillance programs Friday.
His most significant proposal would create an independent attorney to argue against the government during secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews requests for surveillance inside the U.S. As it stands, prosecutors alone go to the court and make their cases unopposed.
Obama also is creating an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers. He did not say who would be on that panel. He has met secretly this week with technology business leaders, and some who co-operated with government surveillance were unhappy to see their companies named in leaked government documents.
Obama said the NSA would hire a privacy officer, and his intelligence agencies would build a website explaining their mission.
Even with the proposed changes, Obama will have to persuade Congress to reauthorize the Patriot Act in 2015.
-- The Associated Press