President Barack Obama praised the United States’ commitment to privacy Friday and said the U.S. government’s mass surveillance programs would be put on a new legal footing before he leaves office in January 2017.
“As the world’s oldest continuous constitutional democracy, I think we know a little bit about trying to protect people’s privacy,” Obama said, standing next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference at the White House.
Merkel politely avoided giving direct answers to questions about the National Security Agency tapping her personal cellphone.
Obama described Merkel as “one of my closest friends on the world stage” and said whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. spying on Merkel strained that relationship, which “pained” him.
“She should not doubt, and the German people should not doubt, how seriously we take these issues,” Obama said, promising greater bilateral cooperation and more restrained conduct.
“I’m absolutely committed that by the time I leave this office, we’re going to have a stronger legal footing and international framework for how we are doing business in the intelligence sphere,” Obama said.
A desire to put surveillance on a “stronger legal footing” previously transformed the George W. Bush administration’s so-called warrantless wiretapping program into the NSA’s dragnet collection of American phone records using secret court orders.
Obama likely meant he intends to see his proposed reforms to the phone record program enacted.
After months of defending the program, Obama announced in March he would seek the termination of the NSA’s in-house retention of all call records and a requirement that the NSA receive approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before acquiring the records of targets and their contacts.
Obama could have enacted the reform unilaterally but instead deferred to Congress, where dueling proposals are supported by NSA allies and more libertarian-minded privacy advocates.
Obama said Friday his support for reforming surveillance programs has actually been long-standing.
“I’ve also been convinced for a very long time that it is important for our legal structures and our policy structures to catch up with rapidly advancing technologies, and as a consequence, through a series of steps, what we’ve tried to do is reform what we do,” he said.