President Obama met with hand-picked lawmakers at the White House on Thursday to discuss the National Security Agency’s controversial spying programs, the main event of a week full of meetings at the White House focusing on potential reforms for the maligned federal agency.
The gathering in the Roosevelt Room occurred ahead of Obama’s planned announcement of possible NSA reforms the administration hopes to push out before his State of the Union address at the end of the month. It included top defenders of NSA surveillance, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as well as loud critics, such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
At least some of the lawmakers left the meeting unconvinced that the president is going to do enough to curtail the NSA’s activities. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said “it’s increasingly clear that we need to take legislative action to reform” the NSA’s intelligence gathering.
“If the president believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security,” Goodlatte said in a statement. “Americans’ civil liberties are at stake in this debate.”
Sensenbrenner, whose Freedom Act would rein in the NSA’s domestic-surveillance powers, was even harsher.
“All three branches of government have said the NSA has gone too far,” said Sensenbrenner, who also authored the post-9/11 Patriot Act, from which the NSA derives much of its legal justification for its data grabs. “Even President Obama’s hand-picked panel agrees that bulk collection by the NSA has come at a high cost to privacy without improving national security. This problem cannot be solved by presidential fiat.”
Obama’s aides have repeatedly said he is weighing input from several different sources — including 46 recommendations from his surveillance-review task force — and is still in the process of determining how to best alter the NSA’s data-collection practices without limiting their ability to protect national security. What remains unclear is whether Obama convened Thursday’s meeting to solicit more opinion from congressional leaders on the topic or to try to forge a coalition of support for a package of reforms put on the table.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that Obama “wants to hear from [the lawmakers] to discuss with them the status of his review, which is ongoing.” Carney added that Obama is “at that stage still where he’s listening and discussing with a variety of stakeholders [on] these issues.”
Thursday’s huddle with 16 lawmakers from both chambers followed others at the White House earlier in the week with congressional intelligence staffers, some tech groups, and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
Privacy advocates largely remain skeptical that any actions Obama proposes will go far enough in ensuring the NSA is free from potential abuses, a viewpoint that many members of Congress share.
Obama suggested at his year-end press conference last month that some reforms, particularly regarding transparency, needed to be made to restore public confidence in the NSA, but stopped short of embracing any blockbuster changes even after a D.C. District Court judge derided the agency’s bulk data collection as “almost Orwellian” and probably unconstitutional. Obama’s public posturing on NSA surveillance has remained virtually unchanged since former agency contractor Edward Snowden began leaking documents about the scope of the programs last June.
Also on Thursday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger, vocal backers of the NSA programs, issued a statement citing a new, top-secret Pentagon report purportedly revealing that Snowden’s leaks may “gravely impact” national security. The report also finds that Snowden downloaded about 1.7 million intelligence files.
“This report confirms my greatest fears — Snowden’s real acts of betrayal place America’s military men and women at greater risk,” Rogers said in the statement. “Snowden’s actions are likely to have lethal consequences for our troops in the field.”
Rogers attended Thursday’s meeting at the White House. Ruppersberger, while invited, was unable to attend.
Another meeting between White House counsel and civil-society organizations was scheduled for Thursday afternoon. Some tech companies are believed to be meeting on Friday as well.
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