Congressional leaders hammered President Obama on Sunday for his plan to review and potentially alter government surveillance programs.
But the changes floated by the president at a news conference Friday aren’t driving the backlash. Instead, lawmakers are taking aim at the White House’s perpetual game of catch-up, in which the national security versus privacy debate has been driven not by the administration but by figures such as National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
“I think Snowden came out and leaked this information and the White House has been backtracking ever since. When the story initially broke, the president went undercover,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He finally came out last Friday trying to come up with ways to salvage the program by window dressing. The problem fundamentally is he’s failed to explain these programs which are lawful, which have saved lives, which have stopped terrorist plots.”
Mr. Obama’s remarks, offered just before the first family left town for vacation, were meant to appease critics who say the federal government is slowly eroding Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights. Among other things, the president asked Congress to review portions of the Patriot Act that allow the NSA and other agencies to monitor telephone records and gather other forms of data.
The depth of those programs was first revealed by Mr. Snowden, the former government contractor recently granted asylum in Russia. He has been charged by the Justice Department with espionage and other offenses.
In addition to reviewing the Patriot Act, Mr. Obama also proposed putting privacy advocates in the courtroom to argue against the government’s case for search warrants and enhanced snooping efforts. He also said there must be greater transparency around those programs, an effort to restore skeptical Americans’ trust in their leaders.
The White House has maintained that it welcomes the debate and that the president intends to lead a national conversation on the best way to balance security and privacy.
But critics say the administration has fallen into the trap of reacting to events, such as the Snowden leaks, and the public pressure that results.
The president has “been silent for the last two months,” Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“He’s allowed the Edward Snowdens and the others of the world to dominate the media, and now we have people who actually think the NSA is spying on people, is listening to our phone calls, is reading our emails,” Mr. King said.
In recent weeks, lawmakers’ voices have become louder in the larger debate.
Rep. James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, joined Republicans last month in voting to defund NSA surveillance programs. He said he did so not because he doesn’t trust the president but because he thinks Congress must be more involved.
“The president spoke out on this issue long before Snowden. And I was very comfortable with the president’s position on this,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“It’s just that every now and then, you cast a vote in order to let your constituents know, and for your colleagues to know, exactly how you feel about a situation, and sometimes, let the White House know that this is something that we cannot allow you to have just a blank check on,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s proposed changes also have drawn criticism from outside Washington, including from Mr. Snowden’s father, Lon.