In his remarks, the president gave no indication he was prepared to change the core of one of the most controversial programs, an effort to collect and store identifying information about virtually all the phone calls made in the United States.
There was quick reaction from lawmakers.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying he would ‘‘carefully examine the materials released today and will continue to press for greater transparency, including the release of significant FISA Court opinions.’’
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgian and senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, said, ‘‘I believe there is a consensus among my colleagues that any modifications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be made on a strong bipartisan basis and must not impede the intelligence community’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks.’’
Obama announced relatively modest changes, including one to create an independent attorney to argue against the government during secret hearings of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews requests for surveillance inside the U.S. Under current law, prosecutors now make their legal case without opposing argument, subject only to a ruling by a judge.
Obama is creating an outside advisory panel to review U.S. surveillance powers, although it is unclear how that differs from the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an existing panel mandated by Congress, to monitor surveillance systems and constitutional considerations.
Obama said the NSA would hire a privacy officer and that intelligence agencies would build a website explaining their mission.
As Obama spoke, the Justice Department released what Obama called ‘‘the legal rationale’’ for the surveillance. The document appeared to be primarily a recitation of what the administration has previously told Congress.
On another subject the president declined to confirm a series of drone strikes recently reported carried out in Yemen to deter a suspected terrorist plot.
At the same time, he said the United States was making progress toward arresting the killers of four Americans who perished last year in a terrorist attack at a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. ‘‘We are intent on capturing those who carried out this attack. And we’re going to stay on it until we get them,’’ he said.