WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama was confronted by congressional critics of the National Security Agency’s collection of Americans’ telephone records Thursday, as new limitations on the intelligence program appeared increasingly likely.
Obama invited lawmakers on both sides of the issue to an Oval Office meeting. The lawmakers left without speaking to reporters. But in interviews later, they said there was agreement that the surveillance efforts suffer from perception problems that have hurt the American people’s trust.
The meeting came as Russia granted temporary asylum to former government contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents exposing the NSA’s capability to sweep up data about phone and Internet use. The U.S. had insisted that he be sent home to face prosecution on espionage charges.
Snowden’s revelations have reopened a national debate over government surveillance powers that have grown since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“There is openness to making changes,” Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said after the meeting with Obama.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, top Republican on the Senate’s intelligence panel and a strong NSA defender, said, “A lot of ideas were thrown out. Nothing was concluded.”
A leading critic of the surveillance programs, Sen. Ron Wyden, said he proposed strengthening the government’s ability to get emergency authorization to collect an individual’s phone records, so that pre-emptive collection of everyone’s records would no longer be necessary.
“I felt that the president was open to ideas — and we’re going to make sure he has some,” Wyden said.
Wyden and two Senate colleagues also unveiled legislation Thursday to overhaul the secret federal court that oversees the programs, which critics say does little but approve every request. The senators aim to make the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court more adversarial by creating a special advocate who could argue for privacy during closed-door proceedings and appeal decisions.
White House officials declined to comment on it.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he stressed to Obama the role Congress must play in ensuring that U.S. spying isn’t infringing on civil liberties. He said his committee would further explore the issue.
The White House pledged to help Americans understand as much as possible about how the surveillance programs work, even as it defended them.
“That process will continue,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “But I don’t think that we can sensibly say that programs designed to protect us from terrorist attack are not necessary in this day and age.”
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.