For Obama, NSA review a quest to regain public trust in surveillance operations
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Faced with Edward Snowden's first leaks about the government's sweeping surveillance apparatus, President Barack Obama's message to Americans boiled down to this: trust me.
"I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about," Obama said in June, days after the initial disclosure about the National Security Agency's bulk collection of telephone data from millions of people.
But the leaks kept coming. They painted a picture of a clandestine spy program that indiscriminately scooped up phone and Internet records, while also secretly keeping tabs on the communications of friendly foreign leaders, like Germany's Angela Merkel.
On Friday, Obama will unveil a much-anticipated blueprint on the future of those endeavors. His changes appear to be an implicit acknowledgement that the trust he thought Americans would have in the spy operations is shaky at best. His focus is expected to be on steps that increase oversight and transparency while largely leaving the framework of the programs in place.
The president is expected to back the creation of an independent public advocate on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the bulk collections and currently only hears arguments from the government. And seeking to soothe international anger, Obama will extend some privacy protections to foreigners and increase oversight of the process used to decide on foreign leader monitoring.
In previewing Obama's speech, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the president believes the government can make surveillance activities "more transparent in order to give the public more confidence about the problems and the oversight of the programs."
For Obama, the reality of the public's fraying trust settled in slowly over a summer of relentless disclosures based on the 1.7 million documents Snowden is believed to have stolen while working for the NSA as a contractor. The revelations chased Obama abroad, becoming a centerpiece of summits with world leaders and a long-planned meeting with Merkel in Berlin.
By August, Obama acknowledged that his initial assumptions about how the public would respond to the revelations had been "undermined."
"I think people have questions about this program," he said while announcing the review that will culminate in Friday's speech.
Polling suggests the public is largely divided about the NSA spying. But a November survey from ABC News and The Washington Post found that just 35 percent of Americans approved of the way Obama was handling the agency's surveillance operations, while 53 percent disapproved.
It's unclear whether announcements will shift the public's views. U.S. officials familiar with the White House review say the president will generally back changes to heavily scrutinized bulk phone records collections, but will leave it to Congress to sort out the specifics. That includes a key decision over whether to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records and move the data to the providers or a third party.
People close to the White House say Obama's approach appears to reflect a president that has come to appreciate the effectiveness of the tools at the government's disposal.
"Some of these surveillance tools are very useful, and I think he embraces them," said Jane Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. "At the same time, he embraces the notion of a public debate on this and some restraints."
Privacy advocates are already criticizing Obama's expected announcements as insufficient.
"While we welcome the president's acknowledgement that reforms must be made, we warn the president not to expect thunderous applause for cosmetic reforms," said David Segal, executive director of the civil liberties group Demand Progress.
Some privacy advocates say they're particularly disappointed because of Obama's vocal opposition to what he saw as surveillance outreach under his predecessor, George W. Bush, in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Even so, Obama, as a senator from Illinois, voted in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election for legislation supporting the NSA programs.
And while Obama has said he welcomes the current public debate over the surveillance programs, it's all but certain it would not be happening had Snowden not thrust the secret programs out into the open.
The president has been largely dismissive of Snowden himself, branding him a "hacker" who should return to the U.S. to face espionage charges. Snowden first fled to Hong Kong, then Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum.
Privacy advocates have pushed for Snowden to be given amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S. But the White House has indicated that Obama had not considered those options as part of his surveillance review.
AP Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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