WASHINGTON -- Taking steps to temper public concern, President Barack Obama held his first meeting yesterday with a privacy and civil liberties board as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans understand more about the government's sweeping surveillance efforts.
The five members of the obscure Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board huddled with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on two National Security Agency programs that have stoked controversy after the extent of U.S. phone and Internet records the government collects were publicly disclosed. Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough, and his top lawyer, Kathy Ruemmler, also joined the session.
David Medine, the board's chairman, said members urged Obama to give the American public a clear understanding of the reasoning behind the NSA's secret surveillance system.
They stressed "that every effort be made to publicly provide the legal rationale for the programs in order to enhance the public discussion and debate about the legality and propriety of the country's counterterrorism efforts," Medine said in an interview.
Obama has insisted the programs are subject to judicial and congressional oversight and says he's confident his administration is striking the proper balance between national security and privacy. Still, in an attempt to show he welcomes a public discussion about the proper balance, the White House said Obama and his aides would start meeting with a range of interested parties to talk digital privacy -- starting with yesterday's meeting.
"He certainly believes that we need to evaluate them consistently and debate them and make judgments about how we're striking that balance," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The White House did not allow media coverage of the meeting. Members of the privacy board -- a federal oversight panel that reviews anti-terror programs to ensure that privacy concerns are taken into account -- left the White House without speaking to reporters.
Meanwhile, an effort was under way to determine whether more details about the programs could be declassified to facilitate greater public understanding of what the government can and can't do. The White House said that at Obama's direction, his counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, had asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to review possible declassification of opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves the surveillance efforts.