CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Scott Simon is away. This week, President Obama said he's open to reforms of the National Security Agency's surveillance program. Speaking at a White House news conference, the President said he still believes the programs have adequate protections for Americans' privacy.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who worry that it could be subject to abuse. So after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, I believe there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.
HEADLEE: Joining us to discuss the proposed reforms is NPR's Larry Abramson. Good morning.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Good morning.
HEADLEE: Just how far do the proposed reforms go?
ABRAMSON: Well, mostly they're in the direction of creating more transparency around the NSA program so that Americans will understand them better and they won't be so secret. And that is one of the criticisms, is that we didn't even know about these things until Edward Snowden leaked news about them.
The president talked about creating a public advocate. This would be somebody who would actually argue before a secret surveillance court on the other side of the government in defense of civil liberties, we presume. And he also talked about reforming a program that has been used by the National Security Agency to collect a database of U.S. phone traffic.
Now, it's not clear whether the president is really talking about reigning in that program or just creating more transparency around it. And the White House during a news conference released a 26-page single-spaced legal justification for that collection program. And that sort of points us in the direction of explaining why these things are legal, as opposed to limiting them, which is what a lot of critics really want.
HEADLEE: And yet these same critics you're talking about say the NSA is violating Americans civil liberties simply by creating that database of phone calls. Will the reforms the president discussed actually satisfy those critics?
ABRAMSON: Mostly no. I mean, the civil liberties communities said that they welcome the president's involvement and they welcomed his proposals and of course they are glad that he's paying attention to this issue. But they want the collection of information about people who are not connected with terrorism, you know, ordinary Americans, to stop.
They say that it's a violation of the constitution to go through all of this information just to get the handful of terrorists who are out there. And the security community, the intelligence community, has said, well, that's not how it works. We need to get access to the entire haystack in order to find the needle.
The president didn't say he was closed to the idea of restricting these programs or sifting through less data, but he didn't propose anything specific that would actually take that step. So, no, right now I would say we're still at the beginning of the reform process.
HEADLEE: And, Larry, this news conference came during the same week when U.S. embassies were closed down because of concerns about terrorism and al-Qaida attacks. Is there concern that these alerts and heightened danger could slow momentum for any reforms in the surveillance program?
ABRAMSON: Well, you know, it's interesting. Before the president's news conference a lot of people were seeing that, you know, oh, you know, we have another terror alert. There are some cynics out there who say these terror alerts are put out there deliberately to help justify these programs.
ABRAMSON: Other people said it would be harder to get these things through Congress once people are, you know, in a state of fear that there might be more attacks. So it's interesting that the president chose this particular moment to bring this up when I suppose he might've just said, see, I told you these things are important.
He obviously wants to sort of take control of this debate, become a participant in the debate, rather than simply saying sorry, you know, this is what's necessary to stop terrorism. But again, it's not clear that he can do that because right now these critics are - it's a criticism of his administration for being too secretive.
And it's not clear that he is, you know, going to be able to join in this conversation that he says he wants to have without making really serious changes to the programs.
HEADLEE: OK. Thanks so much, NPR's Larry Abramson.
ABRAMSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.