As presidential press conferences go, this afternoon's event was pretty newsworthy -- President Obama noted at the outset that his administration can do more when it comes to transparency and safeguards in the nation's surveillance efforts.
President Obama on Friday sought to get his administration ahead of the roiling debate over National Security Agency surveillance, releasing new information about spying activities and calling for changes aimed at bolstering public confidence that the programs do not intrude too far into Americans' privacy. [...]Among other steps, Mr. Obama announced the creation of a high-level task force of outside intelligence and civil liberties specialists to advise the government about how to balance security and privacy as computer technology makes it possible to gather ever more information about people's private lives.The president also threw his administration's support behind a proposal to change the procedures of the secret court that approves electronic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in order to make its deliberations more adversarial.
Not surprisingly, there's a limit to how many details the president was willing to share during brief remarks, but a senior administration official told msnbc today, "We mean this as a down payment on some greater understanding of what NSA is and how it goes about its business," adding, "This [declassification of materials] provides us the foundation to make additional information transparent as necessary." This "may" include information beyond what was leaked by Edward Snowden.
Also note, while Obama can make some changes within the executive branch, he will need Congress for some additional reforms, including a review of "Section 215" of the Patriot Act, which gives the administration expansive powers on collecting phone records. Obama also referenced in his remarks a panel to recommend additional changes, though it's unclear who'll serve on it or when we might hear from the commission.
Of particular interest to me was the part on legal rationales. In recent years, the White House has, on more than one occasion, defended surveillance efforts by assuring the public that there was a thorough review and the programs in use were approved after meaningful legal scrutiny -- but no one was allowed to see the conclusions. As of this afternoon, at least some of this will change, with the Justice Department set to release materials that explain the administration's authority in "some detail," along with "controls and accountabilities" of the NSA itself.
It will take to consider the changes in detail, and determine how they'll be applied and when, but it appears the newly announced reforms represent a step in the right direction.