Obama's balancing act on domestic spying programmes

Washington, Aug 10 (IANS) In a balancing act, US President Barack Obama outlined reforms to prevent abuse of controversial US domestic surveillance programmes that he insisted help keep America safe, but critics said the steps did not go far enough.

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama said Friday amidst a public outcry over US intelligence gathering measures.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programmes," Obama said during a news conference in the East Room of the White House.

"The American people need to have confidence as well."

The National Security Agency's domestic surveillance programmes, including one that monitors the metadata of domestic phone calls, have come under the scanner following their disclosure by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been given a one-year asylum by Russia.

Four steps aimed at reassuring the public outlined by Obama included working with Congress to reform Section 215 of the Bush-era Patriot Act, which governs the programme that collects telephone records.

To add an adversarial voice, he has also proposed appointing a lawyer to argue against the government at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is accused of essentially rubber-stamping official requests to scour electronic records.

Obama also announced the formation of a group of external experts to review all US government intelligence and communications technologies.

Obama has also directed justice department to declassify the legal rationale for the government's phone-data collection, and said NSA would put in place a "civil liberties and privacy officer".

But the "legal rationale" presented in a 22-page "white paper", according to the Washington Post asserted "a bold and broad power to collect the phone records of millions of Americans in order to search for a nugget of information that might thwart a terrorist attack".

"The release of the white paper appeared to do little to allay the concerns of critics in Congress and the civil liberties community who say the surveillance programme violates Americans' right to privacy," the influential US daily noted.

The New York Times editorial called Obama's proposals "A Weak Agenda on Spying Reform" suggesting that the president "does not seem to understand that the nation needs to hear more than soothing words about the government's spying enterprise".

Chiding Obama for "bizarrely" comparing "the need for transparency to showing his wife that he had done the dishes, rather than just telling her he had done so", it said "Out-of-control surveillance is a bit more serious than kitchen chores".

"If the president is truly concerned about public anxiety, he can vocally support legislation to make meaningful changes, rather than urging people to trust him that the dishes are clean," it quipped.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)

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