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Obama: NSA programs could be 'redesigned' to prevent abuses

After a week of fireworks over NSA spying, including a judge's use of the word "Orwellian" and a surprisingly critical report from the president's own advisory panel, Obama speaks of reform but says specifics will come later.

President Barack Obama answers questions during a White House press conference Friday. live stream/screenshot by CNET

Capping off a week of fireworks over the NSA's surveillance programs, President Barack Obama said Friday that he's open to reform but that specifics won't come till the New Year. He also called the current debate over spying necessary but said disclosures by Edward Snowden had "damaged" the US and its intelligence capabilities.

During a press conference at the White House, Obama said programs like the intelligence agency's bulk collection of phone metadata, which it legally justifies under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, could be reworked in a way that would address concerns over privacy and potential domestic spying.

"There are ways we can do it, potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances -- that there's sufficient oversight and sufficient transparency," Obama said. "Programs like 215 could be redesigned in ways that give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse, and that's exactly what we should be doing, is to evaluate all these things in a very clear, specific way and moving forward on changes."

The press conference followed the release, on Wednesday, of reform recommendations made by Obama's handpicked NSA advisory panel, which issued a report that many found more hard-hitting than expected.

One idea floated in the proposals was scrapping the NSA's direct collection and storage of data and instead having the phone companies hang onto it. In this scenario, the intelligence outfit would be required to get a court order, on a case-by-case basis, to receive specific data from the phone firms. The spy agency says such a setup could prevent it from getting the information it needs quickly enough.

Obama signaled that the notion was on the table.

"Let me just be very specific on the 215 program," the president said. "It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is required to keep people safe can be obtained by having the private phone companies keep these records longer and to create some mechanism where they can be accessed in an effective fashion. That might cost more. There might need to be different checks on how those requests are made. There may be technological solutions that have to be found to do that."

Obama said that in the next few weeks, he'd be talking with the intelligence community and with people inside and outside of government about the panel's recommendations, and that he'd make a "pretty definitive" statement about reform in January.

"I'll be able to say, here are the recommendations that we think make sense," he said, "here are ones that we think of as promising but still need to be refined further, here's how it relates to the work we're doing not just internally but also in partnership with other countries."

The tail end of that comment also seems to reflect a realization on the part of the White House that there need to be protections not just for Americans but for people in other countries as well.

"I think part of what's been interesting about this whole exercise is recognizing that in a virtual world, some of these boundaries don't matter anymore," Obama said. "And just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should, and the values that we've got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, I think, perhaps more systematically than we've done in the past."

Aside from the report issued earlier in the week by the president's NSA advisory panel, a federal judge handed down a ruling saying the bulk phone records program violates the Constitution in an "almost Orwellian" way (the judge's injunction against the program is on hold pending a government appeal). The ruling prompted NSA critics and supporters of Snowden to say that Snowden had been vindicated. Obama, however, doesn't seem convinced.

When asked if he'd consider amnesty for Snowden, who's wanted by the US Department of Justice under the Espionage Act, Obama said:

The fact of the matter is that the United States, for all our warts, is a country that abides by rule of law, that cares deeply about privacy, that cares about civil liberties, that cares about our Constitution. And as a consequence of these disclosures, we've got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he's worried about, very explicitly -- engaging in surveillance of their own citizens, targeting political dissidents, targeting and suppressing the press -- who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it's the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations. And that's a pretty distorted view of what's going on out there.

So I think that, as important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to US intelligence capabilities and US diplomacy. But I will leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden's case.

The president was also asked if he was able to identify any specific examples of the NSA's bulk metadata program actually stopping an imminent terrorist attack. The spy agency has put the threat of terrorism front and center in its defense of its programs, but both the advisory panel and the judge who issued the "Orwellian" ruling said there's no evidence the bulk program has helped on this score.

Obama didn't address the question directly, saying that he found the program "useful" and that:

What I've said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone and that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.

The president also added that despite fears of abuse, such as domestic political spying and the like, "there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of [the data gathered under the 215 program]."

And Obama said that balancing national security and civil liberties is tricky:

I think it's important to note that, when it comes to the right balance on surveillance, these are a series of judgment calls that we're making every single day because we've got a whole bunch of folks whose job it is to make sure that the American people are protected.

And that's a hard job because if something slips, then the question that's coming from you the next day at a press conference is, "Mr. President, why didn't you catch that; why did the intelligence people allow that to slip; isn't there a way that we could have found out that in fact this terrorist attack [was going to take] place?"

Update, 3:02 p.m. PT: Adds Obama's comments about how striking a balance is a "hard job."