President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the East Room at the White House on August 9, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Obama spoke on the U.S. surveillance program and relations with Russia. UPI/Kevin Dietsch | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday he is taking steps to make sure national security surveillance is more transparent.
During a news conference at the White House, his first in months, Obama also had critical words for Russian President Vladimir Putin -- saying the United States would not boycott the Olympic Games in Russia because of increased tensions -- National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and Republicans, but he led off with plans for surveillance reform.
Though he credited Snowden with starting an avalanche of confused debate about surveillance programs, "I don't think Mr. Snowden is a patriot," the president said.
"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs," Obama said. "The American people need to have confidence in them, as well."
Obama said he would take four specific steps "to move the debate [about surveillance] forward."
"First, I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the program that collects telephone records," the president said. "As I've said, this program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots, and it does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant.
"But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse."
Obama said the second step is to "work with Congress to improve the public's confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISC. The FISC was created by Congress to provide judicial review of certain intelligence activities so that a federal judge must find that our actions are consistent with the Constitution.
"However, to build greater confidence, I think we should consider some additional changes to the FISC. One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story -- may tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty. And while I've got confidence in the court, and I think they've done a fine job, I think we can provide greater assurances that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives: Security and privacy."
Third, "we can and must be more transparent. So I've directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible. We've already declassified unprecedented information about the [National Security Agency]. But we can go further. So at my direction the Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the government's collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The NSA's taking steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and released information that details its mission, authorities and oversight."
Obama said, the intelligence community "is creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency. This will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn't do, how it carries out its mission and why it does so.
As a fourth step, Obama said, "we're forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking for a new era."
The president also answered questions on a wide range of issues.
Of the strained relationship with Putin, Obama said, "I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American [once Putin became president in his third term], that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia.
"And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues with mixed success.
Obama said although he had canceled a summit in Moscow with Putin -- on a range of issues, not because Russia offered Snowden temporary asylum -- he still plans to attend the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg.
The president said of Putin, "he's got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is is that when we're in conversations together, oftentimes it's very productive."
Obama also told reporters Republicans in the U.S. House, where immigration reform is stalled, should look at the facts.
"We've got an economic report that shows our economy would be $1 trillion stronger if we get immigration reform done," Obama said.
Republicans, who control the House, have balked at a Senate bill that would create a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal aliens.
Obama also said he has reports indicating immigration reform would help the housing market and help maintain the U.S. technological and research edge.
"We know that the Senate bill strengthens border security. ... So if your main priority is border security, I'd think you'd want to vote for this bill," Obama told reporters at the White House.
On healthcare, Obama defended the Affordable Care Act, questioning why Republicans have made its repeal "the Holy Grail" of their party.
Obama said Republicans No. 1 priority appears to be "making sure 30 million [uninsured] people don't have healthcare."
On the terror front, Obama said there was no conflict between his assertion in May "core al-Qaida" had been decimated and the current security alert.
The United States and other Western countries have closed embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa due to reports of terror plots.
"What I said [in a May speech] is that core al-Qaida is on its heels and has been decimated," Obama told reporters at the White House, "but what I also said was that al-Qaida has metastasized" into smaller groups.
"They [still] have the capacity to go after our interests," Obama said.
By "core al-Qaida," Obama said, he was referring to the tightly organized group that organized the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
On a possible successor to Ben Bernanke, Obama refused to say whether he would nominate Larry Summers to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Obama told reporters he is looking at "a range of outstanding candidates," including the former U.S. treasury secretary and Janet Yellen, vice chairwoman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.