WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday told lawmakers he is open to changing controversial surveillance programs in order to restore public confidence and provide assurance the government is not violating citizens’ privacy, participants at the meeting said.
“We understand the American people really do need to know what’s going on now and what’s going on in the past and get the right kind of assurances that their privacy has not been breached,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who attended the meeting.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to make the program more transparent,” he said.
Since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread government collection of phone and Internet records, a debate has erupted over how far the government should be allowed to go in monitoring its citizens’ communications to protect the country from attacks.
Opposition to government surveillance has created an unlikely alliance of libertarian Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. The House of Representatives last week narrowly defeated an amendment to a spending bill that would have limited the NSA’s scope to collect electronic information.
Obama met at the White House with Chambliss and other lawmakers who sit on the intelligence and judiciary committees. These included Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, who has been a skeptic of the NSA data collection program, and Dianne Feinstein, who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on which Chambliss is the top Republican.
Also present were Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the panel.
The White House said the president had called the meeting to discuss the surveillance program and “to hear from some of the programs’ most prominent critics and defenders.”
The intelligence committee leaders said in a joint statement they intend to work through August on proposals to increase transparency and protect privacy in counterterrorism programs.
At the White House, the discussion focused on the need to amend, but not necessarily abolish, the surveillance program, and to explain its merits to those who worry it is an invasion of privacy, Chambliss told reporters.
“We don’t know what type of changes we’re going to make,” he said. “But the president was very amenable for providing the right kind of leadership to ensure that we get together and that we do the right thing.”
The chairman of the House Judiciary panel, Republican Bob Goodlatte, who was also at the meeting, said he plans to hold hearings to ensure that the surveillance does not infringe on civil liberties.
“I stressed to the president that Congress must ensure that the laws we have enacted are executed in a manner that is consistent with congressional intent and that protects both our national security and our civil liberties,” he said in a statement.
A small group of senators unveiled two bills before the White House meeting on Thursday seeking to alter the surveillance programs.
One measure would create a new “special advocate” position who could argue in a court that operates in secret to make decisions on government surveillance requests, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The other would change the way judges are appointed to the FISA courts to ensure that the court represents a broad spectrum of political views.