Obama, agencies detail rationale for NSA surveillance

President Barack Obama holds a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on August 9, 2013.
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Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET

President Obama on Friday announced his administration is taking a series of steps to make National Security Agency programs more transparent, explaining not only how the programs operate but also releasing the Justice Department's legal rationale for the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records. The administration also plans to back various reforms to the programs so they're subject to more oversight.

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Mr. Obama said in a White House news conference. "It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well."

The move toward greater transparency starts Friday, with the release of a brief NSA document describing the authorities the NSA has under various laws like the Patriot Act, as well as the means and methods used to exercise that authority, and controls used to hold the NSA accountable for its actions. The document is meant to provide "a foundation from which we can build out broader transparency measures," a senior administration official told reporters Friday.

Mr. Obama and members of his administration noted Friday that the president called for greater accountability in national security programs before former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about NSA programs. Some of the steps announced Friday, however, are in direct response to the outcry Snowden's leaks created.

"I called for a review of our surveillance programs" back in May, Mr. Obama said. "Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate, but not always fully informed way."

One senior administration official said the NSA is providing a brief outline of its programs because knowledge of the programs without an appropriate understanding of them can lead to "extrapolations that are not appropriate and often sensationalized."

"Frankly, I think what we've seen so far is... elements of a blueprint of NSA programs but not the operating manual," the official said. "What we're trying to do is describe the operating manual."

Also on Friday, the Justice Department released the legal rationale for the sweeping collection of U.S. phone records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- months after lawmakers like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the Patriot Act, called on the Justice Department to do so.

"It's not easy to make that information public without giving it a careful scrub," a senior administration official explained.

Section 215 has come under intense scrutiny since Snowden exposed the NSA's phone records collection program in early June. Last month -- after the most heated debate over balancing national security and civil liberties that Congress has had in years -- the House narrowly rejected a bill that would've stripped the NSA of its assumed authority under the Patriot Act to collect records in bulk.