In his first news conference since April, US President Barack Obama on Friday announced new oversight measures for recently revealed domestic and foreign surveillance programs, saying he is confident they are “not being abused,” but that they must be more transparent.
He gave no indication that the US government would end the massive collection of information about telephone calls and e-mails of Americans.
Recent leaks about the surveillance programs have led to the strongest challenge yet to the vast powers the US Congress granted the president after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US.
The modest changes Obama announced on Friday include the formation of an outside advisory panel to review US surveillance powers, assigning a privacy officer at the National Security Agency (NSA) and the creation of an independent attorney to argue against the government before the US’ surveillance court. All those new positions would carry out most of their duties in secret.
Obama also explained this week’s decision to cancel talks next month with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the upcoming G8 summit. He said he has had only “mixed” success in resetting the tense relationship between the two countries.
Russia’s recent decision to grant asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden was not the only reason for canceling the meeting, Obama said. Snowden, a former NSA analyst, revealed details of the surveillance programs and Washington wants him to come home to face espionage charges.
Obama encouraged Putin to “think forward instead of backward” on a long list of issues, including Syria’s civil war and human rights, and said his administration was pausing to determine how best to improve the countries’ difficult relationship.
Although he said that Russia had adopted a frostier stance toward the US since Putin’s re-election, both camps have insisted ties have not broken down.
“I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin,” Obama said. “When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive.”
US and Russian officials on Friday agreed on the need to convene a long-delayed Syrian peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible, but offered no concrete plan to bring the warring Syrian regime and rebels to the table.
Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov told reporters after five hours of meetings in Washington that officials from Russia and the US will meet again by the end of the month to prepare for the Syria talks.
He said much of his meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry was devoted to Syria and both men agreed they needed to convene a so-called Geneva 2 conference “as soon as possible.”
Asked whether this conference would ever happen, Lavrov said that Russia already had won the agreement of its ally Damascus to send a delegation to Geneva without any preconditions.
In wide-ranging comments lasting nearly an hour, Obama declined to confirm a series of US drone strikes in Yemen and said it would not be appropriate to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi over Russia’s new anti-gay law.
British Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday also ruled out a boycott of the Winter Games, saying that attending is a better way of tackling prejudice.