WASHINGTON — Taking steps to temper public concern, President Barack Obama held his first meeting Friday with a privacy and civil liberties board as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans understand more about the government’s sweeping surveillance efforts.
The five members of the obscure Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board huddled with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on two National Security Agency programs that have stoked controversy after the extent of U.S. phone and Internet records the government collects were publicly disclosed. Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and his top lawyer, Kathy Ruemmler, also joined the session.
David Medine, the board’s chairman, said members urged Obama to give the American public a clear understanding of the reasoning behind the NSA’s secret surveillance system.
They stressed “that every effort be made to publicly provide the legal rationale for the programs in order to enhance the public discussion and debate about the legality and propriety of the country’s counterterrorism efforts,” Medine said in an interview.
Obama has insisted the programs are subject to intense judicial and congressional oversight and says he’s confident his administration is striking the proper balance between national security and privacy.
Still, in an attempt to show Obama is serious about welcoming a public discussion about the proper balance, the White House said Obama and his aides would start meeting with a range of interested parties to talk digital privacy — starting with Friday’s meeting.
“He certainly believes that we need to evaluate them consistently and debate them and make judgments about how we’re striking that balance,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
The White House did not allow press coverage of the meeting.
Members of the privacy board — a federal oversight panel that reviews anti-terror programs to ensure that privacy concerns are taken into account — left the White House without speaking to reporters.
Meanwhile, an effort was under way to determine whether more details about the programs could be declassified to facilitate greater public understanding of what the government can and can’t do. The White House said that at Obama’s direction, his counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, had asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to review possible declassification of opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the surveillance efforts.
Ahead of Friday’s session with Obama, the privacy panel was given a classified briefing on the programs last week, and Medine said the group on Friday requested additional briefings about “the effectiveness and practical aspects of how the programs operate.”
He said it was too early to say when the group would publicly release a planned report on its inquiry.
“We have a lot of legal and practical complexities to consider,” Medine said.
The government has already lifted some of the secrecy surrounding the programs following disclosures earlier this month about their existence by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. But the legal opinions from the highly secretive court remain private.
The privacy board was created in 2004 but has operated fitfully ever since, given congressional infighting and at times, censorship by government lawyers.
The board was dormant during Obama’s first term and only became fully functional in May, before the NSA programs became public.
Associated Press writer Stephen Braun in San Antonio contributed to this report.