— U.S. President Barack Obama Friday announced new steps aimed at helping to reassure Americans about government electronic surveillance programs used to protect against terrorism. President Obama also discussed relations with Russia, and threats from al-Qaida and affiliated groups.
Obama announced steps he says will increase transparency and restore public trust in U.S. government surveillance programs.
The issue has been the subject of intense national debate since former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden released details of electronic methods used in the counterterrorism fight.
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Obama said he will work with Congress to pursue "appropriate reforms," including greater oversight and transparency, to a program that collects telephone records, which he again called an important tool to disrupt terrorist plots.
He also called for steps to give Americans more confidence in decisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, including measures to ensure that privacy and civil liberties concerns are taken into account.
As Obama spoke, the Department of Justice and National Security Agency released documents fulfilling a third step, containing additional information about surveillance programs.
The president also directed creation of a group of experts to review intelligence and communications technologies, against the backdrop of challenges in preventing new terrorist attacks.
"All these steps designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values. And to others around the world, I want to make clear once again, that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that is necessary to protect our people and in many cases to protect our allies," said President Obama.
Obama also fielded questions about his decision to cancel a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in part because of tensions over Moscow's decision to grant temporary asylum to Snowden.
Saying he does not have a "bad personal relationship" with Putin, Obama cited cooperation with Russia on issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, and nuclear arms reduction.
The president called the latest tensions part of emerging differences, including issues such as Syria and human rights.
"It is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, re-assess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we are doing things that are good for the United States, and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that there are just going to be some differences and we are not going to be able to completely disguise them," said Obama.
Obama noted that he will still be attending the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg. He ruled out suggestions of a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to protest anti-gay legislation in Russia.
"One of the things I am really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold, or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes we are seeing there, and if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes then it would probably make their team weaker," he said.
On the terror threat that forced the temporary closure of nearly two dozen U.S. embassies, Obama was asked if he can still state that al-Qaida's core has been decimated.
The president said the main al-Qaida group that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 has been "broken apart and is very weak," but that regional groups continue to pose a threat.
"This is an ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is weaken it, and strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat we saw on 9/11," he said.
Obama declined to discuss drone strikes in Yemen, which have dramatically increased in recent weeks. He referred reporters to information the administration has released about how it makes decisions on the use of lethal force.
The president was also asked about the failure so far to bring to justice those responsible for the killing of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, in an attack in Benghazi last year.
He said capturing those responsible remains a top priority.
"Anybody who attacks Americans, anybody who kills, tragically, four Americans who were serving us in a very dangerous place, we're going to do everything we can to get those who carried out those attacks," said President Obama.
Obama also defended his administration's implementation of health care reform.
Asked about Republican threats to shut down the federal government over funding for health care reform, Obama said he is confident that common sense will prevail.
"That we would precipitate another crisis here in Washington that no economist thinks is a good idea, I am assuming they will not take that path," he said.
Obama and his family depart Saturday for an eight-day vacation on Martha's Vineyard, in the northeastern state of Massachusetts.