In a press conference on Friday, President Obama took the opportunity to address a number of issues that have become subjects of public debate in recent months. The question-and-answer session, which was Obama’s first full-scale press conference since April 30, elicited questions from reporters spanning a wide range of topics, among them national security surveillance, U.S.-Russia relations, Edward Snowden, and health care.
Obama began the press conference by outlining the steps he plans to take to introduce “appropriate reforms” to domestic surveillance programs, which came under intense scrutiny after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information that shed light on previously secret government surveillance practices. Obama stated that his program would hinge on achieving greater Congressional oversight of domestic surveillance.
“It’s not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs,” he said. “The American people need to have confidence as well. We can and must be more transparent.”
The steps described in the conference include working with Congress to improve the telephone data program and the secret court that approves its related initiatives, improving public transparency of domestic surveillance, improving the legal basis for government data collection practices, and appointing a high-level panel of external experts to review government surveillance technologies.
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Though it was essentially Snowden’s leaks that necessitated increased scrutiny on government surveillance practices, the president maintained that Snowden’s actions did not constitute those of a “whistle-blower” or of a “patriot,” and that he could have pursued “other avenues” with available whistle-blower protections to achieve his goals.
The president also clarified that his decision not to attend a bi=lateral meeting in September with Russian President Vladimir Putin was not entirely a result of Russia’s handling of Snowden, and that the decision was not representative of the newly adversarial relationship between the U.S. and Russia often cited by news media in recent weeks. Obama also dismissed calls to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Russia over the country’s anti-gay rights position.
In regards to health care, Obama condemned Republicans on what he described as an “ideological fixation” to kill Obamacare. “The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don’t have health care,” he said.
The president also addressed lingering concern over al-Qaeda, stating that he stood by his initial assessment that the “core” of the group is now “very weak,” though offshoot groups may pose new threats. However, he declined to comment on recent drone strikes supposedly targeting al-Qaeda affiliates, citing operational discretion. Obama also reiterated his commitment to finding and punishing those involved in last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.