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Obama Weighing Curbs on US Surveillance

  • VOA News

President Barack Obama speaks during an end-of-the year news conference at the White House, Dec. 20, 2013.

President Barack Obama speaks during an end-of-the year news conference at the White House, Dec. 20, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama says he is considering whether to curtail the vast surveillance programs being conducted by the clandestine National Security Agency and expects to make decisions in January on the scope of the spying.

Obama defended the spying at a year-end news conference Friday at the White House, saying the United States needs the intelligence to thwart potential terrorist attacks against it. He said the U.S. "can't unilaterally disarm."

The president, however, also said Americans are "rightly concerned about the possibility of misuse" of the data that the NSA is collecting. Obama said the surveillance programs are "only going to work if the American people have trust" in them.

Obama made the comments days after a judge ruled that the government's collection of millions of records of phone calls made by Americans -- the numbers they called, and the length and dates of the calls -- is likely unconstitutional. A review panel suggested curtailing some of the spy programs.

Obama addressed a wide range of subjects before heading to the island state of Hawaii with first lady Michelle Obama and their two daughters for the Christmas and New Year's Day holidays.

He said the leak of details of the NSA surveillance by one-time national security contractor Edward Snowden damaged the country's intelligence capabilities and hurt its diplomatic relations with other countries.

The president declined to comment on whether he might consider granting Snowden amnesty. Snowden is now living in asylum in Russia and facing U.S. espionage charges, but one high-level NSA official recently suggested amnesty could be considered if the U.S. could collect all the remaining cache of documents he took.

Some U.S. lawmakers have called for more sanctions against Iran, to curb Tehran's nuclear development program. Obama said if the international community is serious about negotiations, it has to create an atmosphere that gets Iran to continue to move toward resolving the nuclear issue.

He said the interim deal that world powers struck with Iran in Geneva has already led to some rolling back of Iran's nuclear capabilities -- the first time that has happened in almost a decade of dispute.

Obama said "it is very important to test" whether a permanent deal can be completed -- "not because it's guaranteed, but because the alternative is possibly us having to engage in some sort of conflict to resolve the problem with all sorts of unintended consequences."

Obama defended national health care reforms -- popularly known as Obamacare -- that are now being implemented in the U.S. He said "the basic structure of that law is working," but acknowledged the rollout has been a "messy process."

With the national security disclosures and the health care roll-out, U.S. political analysts say that 2013 has been the worst of Obama's five years in the White House. His approval ratings have fallen sharply, with a new CNN survey showing that Americans - by a 56-to-41 percent margin - disapprove of his handling of the presidency.

Obama acknowledged that his opinion poll numbers are low, but said his ratings have gone up and down throughout the course of his career. Obama said if he were interested in polling results, he never would have run for the presidency.

He said that 2014 "needs to be a year of action," with the country boosting its labor market and fixing its broken immigration system. He noted the recent advance in the U.S. economy, but said more needs to be done to cut the jobless rate and renew benefits for long-term unemployed workers.

While the U.S. often has been consumed by political gridlock during his presidency, Obama said that a recent agreement with Congress on a budget for the next two years proves Washington does not have to have "endless gridlock."