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History > 2013 > USA > Politics > White House / President (III)




A Small Step Toward More Mercy


December 22, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama’s decision on Thursday to commute the outrageously long drug sentences of eight men and women showed a measure of compassion and common sense. But it also served to highlight the injustice being done to thousands of prisoners under federal sentencing laws.

In issuing the commutations, Mr. Obama blamed the “unfair system” that is keeping thousands behind bars solely because they were sentenced before August 2010, when Congress reduced the vast disparity between the way federal courts punish crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses. The three-year-old federal law, the Fair Sentencing Act, allows prisoners to petition a judge to shorten their sentence, but it does not apply to nearly 9,000 prisoners who were already serving time when it was passed. While Congress is considering legislation to make the law retroactive, any such fix is far from assured.

In addition, thousands more federal drug prisoners are serving unjust sentences for other reasons, including mandatory minimums that punish anyone connected to a sales or trafficking operation based on the overall weight of the drugs, regardless of how minor a role that person played. For many of these people — including Clarence Aaron, who received three life sentences for a first-time, nonviolent drug deal, which Mr. Obama commuted — there is no prospect of helpful legislation on the horizon. Their only hope is executive clemency.

It is important to recognize that while Mr. Obama showed mercy to these eight people, his administration has been the least merciful in modern times. The power to mitigate an overly harsh sentence is squarely in his hands, and yet in nearly five years he has commuted just nine sentences and issued 52 pardons. (A commutation lessens the severity of a punishment, while a pardon forgives the offense itself and restores the rights people lose when they go to prison.)

There is no excuse for this lack of compassion. The risk to public safety is often used to justify denials of clemency, but a preliminary report issued in July by the United States Sentencing Commission found that the recidivism rates for the more than 7,300 prisoners who received sentence reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act were similar to those for inmates who served full sentences.

There is now fairly widespread agreement that federal drug laws are far too harsh and inflexible, and that their burden falls most heavily upon the poor and racial minorities. Given so many cases of injustice, why was Mr. Obama able to identify only a handful of people worthy of clemency? Part of the fault lies with the pardon office, which has been ineffective in doing its job in processing clemency requests. Last week’s commutations were the result of a request Mr. Obama made a year ago to have the Justice Department review pending clemency petitions. Clemency, however, is not the solution to all of the irrationality and harshness of America’s sentencing laws.

Mr. Obama did not create the broken criminal justice system, but he can do much more to lessen its impact on those who have been most unfairly punished by it.

A Small Step Toward More Mercy, NYT, 22.12.2013,






Mr. Obama’s Disappointing Response


December 20, 2013
The New York Times


By the time President Obama gave his news conference on Friday, there was really only one course to take on surveillance policy from an ethical, moral, constitutional and even political point of view. And that was to embrace the recommendations of his handpicked panel on government spying — and bills pending in Congress — to end the obvious excesses. He could have started by suspending the constitutionally questionable (and evidently pointless) collection of data on every phone call and email that Americans make.

He did not do any of that.

Sure, Mr. Obama thanked his panel for making 46 recommendations to restore the rule of law and constitutional principles to government surveillance activities. (The number alone casts a bad light on the president’s repeated claims that there really was nothing wrong with surveillance policy.) And he promised to review those ideas and let us know next month which, if any, he intends to follow.

But Mr. Obama has had plenty of time to consider this issue, and the only specific thing he said on the panel’s proposals was that it might be a good idea to let communications companies keep the data on phone calls and emails rather than store them in the vast government databases that could be easily abused. But he raised doubts about such a plan, and he left the impression that he sees this issue as basically a question of public relations and public perception.

Mr. Obama, who six months ago said that he thought the data collection struck the “right balance” between security and civil liberties, said on Friday that the government had not abused its access to private information. He continued to defend the mostly secret, internal protocols that the government uses to prevent abuse.

He kept returning to the idea that he might be willing to do more, but only to reassure the public “in light of the disclosures that have taken place.”

In other words, he never intended to make the changes that his panel, many lawmakers and others, including this page, have advocated to correct the flaws in the government’s surveillance policy had they not been revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks.

And that is why any actions that Mr. Obama may announce next month would certainly not be adequate. Congress has to rewrite the relevant passage in the Patriot Act that George W. Bush and then Mr. Obama claimed — in secret — as the justification for the data vacuuming.

Federal lawyers argued their way into a misreading of that passage, which deals with the collection of “business records” to stop or track down terrorists. But its intent, according to those who wrote the law, was never to allow the National Security Agency to collect and store data on every call and every email just in case it might be useful. That seems like a clear violation of the Constitution, as well as the spirit of the law.

    Mr. Obama’s Disappointing Response, NYT, 20.12.2013,






Obama Panel Recommends

New Limits on N.S.A. Spying


December 18, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A panel of outside advisers urged President Obama on Wednesday to impose major oversight and some restrictions on the National Security Agency, arguing that in the past dozen years its powers had been enhanced at the expense of personal privacy.

The panel recommended changes in the way the agency collects the telephone data of Americans, spies on foreign leaders and prepares for cyberattacks abroad.

But the most significant recommendation of the panel of five intelligence and legal experts was that Mr. Obama restructure a program in which the N.S.A. systematically collects logs of all American phone calls — so-called metadata — and a small group of agency officials have the power to authorize the search of an individual’s telephone contacts. Instead, the panel said, the data should remain in the hands of telecommunications companies or a private consortium, and a court order should be necessary each time analysts want to access the information of any individual “for queries and data mining.”

The experts briefed Mr. Obama on Wednesday on their 46 recommendations, and a senior administration official said Mr. Obama was “open to many” of the changes, though he has already rejected one that called for separate leaders for the N.S.A. and its Pentagon cousin, the United States Cyber Command.

If Mr. Obama adopts the majority of the recommendations, it would mark the first major restrictions on the unilateral powers that the N.S.A. has acquired since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They would require far more specific approvals from the courts, far more oversight from the Congress and specific presidential approval for spying on national leaders, especially allies. The agency would also have to give up one of its most potent weapons in cyberconflicts: the ability to insert “back doors” in American hardware or software, a secret way into them to manipulate computers, or to purchase previously unknown flaws in software that it can use to conduct cyberattacks.

“We have identified a series of reforms that are designed to safeguard the privacy and dignity of American citizens, and to promote public trust, while also allowing the intelligence community to do what must be done to respond to genuine threats,” says the report, which Mr. Obama commissioned in August in response to the mounting furor over revelations by Edward J. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor, of the agency’s surveillance practices.

It adds, “Free nations must protect themselves, and nations that protect themselves must remain free.”

White House officials said they expected significant resistance to some of the report’s conclusions from the N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies, which have argued that imposing rules that could slow the search for terror suspects could pave the way for another attack. But those intelligence leaders were not present in the Situation Room on Wednesday when Mr. Obama met the authors of the report.

The report’s authors made clear that they were weighing the N.S.A.’s surveillance requirements against other priorities like constitutional protections for privacy and economic considerations for American businesses. The report came just three days after a federal judge in Washington ruled that the bulk collection of telephone data by the government was “almost Orwellian” and a day after Silicon Valley executives complained to Mr. Obama that the N.S.A. programs were undermining American competitiveness in offering cloud services or selling American-made hardware, which is now viewed as tainted.

The report was praised by privacy advocates in Congress and civil-liberties groups as a surprisingly aggressive call for reform.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has been an outspoken critic of N.S.A. surveillance, said it echoed the arguments of the N.S.A.’s skeptics in significant ways, noting that it flatly declared that the phone-logging program had not been necessary in stopping terrorist attacks.

“This has been a big week for the cause of intelligence reform,” he said.

Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology called the report “remarkably strong,” and singled out its call to sharply limit the F.B.I.’s power to obtain business records about someone through a so-called national security letter, which does not involve court oversight.

Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, while praising the report’s recommendations, questioned “whether the president will have the courage to implement the changes.”

Members of the advisory group said some of the recommendations were intended to provide greater public reassurances about privacy protections rather than to result in any wholesale dismantling of the N.S.A.’s surveillance powers. Richard A. Clarke, a cyberexpert and former national security official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said the report would give “more reason for the skeptics in the public to believe their civil liberties are being protected.”

Other members included Michael J. Morell, a former deputy director of the C.I.A.; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who ran the office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House; Peter Swire, a privacy law specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and Geoffrey R. Stone, a constitutional law specialist at the University of Chicago Law School, where Mr. Obama once taught.

Mr. Obama is expected to take the report to Hawaii on his vacation that starts this week and announce decisions when he returns in early January. Some of the report’s proposals could be ordered by Mr. Obama alone, while others would require legislation from Congress, including changes to how judges are appointed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, said he was skeptical that any changes passed by Congress would go far enough. “It gives me optimism that it won’t be completely brushed under the rug,” he said. “However, I’ve been here long enough to know that in all likelihood when there’s a problem, you get window dressing.”

The FISA court, which oversees national security surveillance inside the United States, has been criticized because it hears arguments only from the Justice Department without adversarial lawyers to raise opposing views, and because Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has unilateral power to select its members. Echoing proposals already floated in congressional hearings and elsewhere, the advisory group backs the view that there should be a “public interest advocate to represent the interests of privacy and civil liberties” in classified arguments before the court. It also says the power to select judges for the surveillance court should be distributed among all the Supreme Court justices.

In backing a restructuring of the N.S.A.’s program that is systematically collecting and storing logs of all Americans’ phone calls, the advisers went further than some of the agency’s backers in Congress, who would make only cosmetic changes to it, but stopped short of calling for the program to be shut down, as its critics have urged. The N.S.A. uses the telephone data to search for links between people in an effort to identify hidden associates of terrorism suspects, but the report says it “was not essential to preventing attacks.”

Currently, the government obtains orders from the surveillance court every 90 days that require all the phone companies to give their customers’ data to the N.S.A., which commingles the records from every company and stores it for five years. A small group of analysts may query the database — examining records of everyone who is linked by up to three degrees of separation from a suspect — if the analyst has “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that the original person being examined is linked to terrorism.

Under the new system proposed by the review group, such records would stay in private hands — either scattered among the phone companies or pooled into some kind of private consortium. The N.S.A. would need to make the case to the surveillance court that it has met the standard of suspicion — and get a judge’s order — every time it wanted to perform such “link analysis.”

“In our view, the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy, and civil liberty,” the report said.

The report recommended new privacy protections for the disclosure of personal information about non-Americans among agencies or to the public. The change would extend to foreigners essentially the same protections that citizens have under the Privacy Act of 1974 — a way of assuring foreign countries that their own citizens, if targeted for surveillance, will enjoy at least some protections under American law.

It also said the United States should get out of the business of secretly buying or searching for flaws in common computer programs and using them for mounting cyberattacks. That technique, using what are called zero-day flaws, so named because they are used with zero days of warning that the flaw exists, were crucial to the cyberattacks that the United States and Israel launched on Iran in an effort to slow its nuclear program. The advisers said that the information should be turned over to software manufacturers to have the mistakes fixed, rather than exploited.

Regarding spying on foreign leaders, the report urged that the issue be taken out the hands of the intelligence agencies and put into the hands of policy makers.


Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.

    Obama Panel Recommends New Limits on N.S.A. Spying, NYT, 18.12.2013,






Disrespect, Race and Obama


November 15, 2013
The New York Times


In an interview with the BBC this week, Oprah Winfrey said of President Obama: “There is a level of disrespect for the office that occurs. And that occurs, in some cases, and maybe even many cases, because he’s African-American.”

With that remark, Winfrey touched on an issue that many Americans have wrestled with: To what extent does this president’s race animate those loyal to him and those opposed? Is race a primary motivator or a subordinate, more elusive one, tainting motivations but not driving them?

To some degree, the answers lie with the questioners. There are different perceptions of racial realities. What some see as slights, others see as innocent opposition. But there are some objective truths here. Racism is a virus that is growing clever at avoiding detection. Race consciousness is real. Racial assumptions and prejudices are real. And racism is real. But these realities can operate without articulation and beneath awareness. For those reasons, some can see racism where it is absent, and others can willfully ignore any possibility that it could ever be present.

To wit, Rush Limbaugh responded to Winfrey’s comments in his usual acerbic way, lacking all nuance:

“If black people in this country are so mistreated and so disrespected, how in the name of Sam Hill did you happen? Would somebody explain that to me? If there’s a level of disrespect simply because he’s black, then how, Oprah, have you managed to become the — at one time — most popular and certainly wealthiest television personality? How does that happen?”

No one has ever accused Limbaugh of being a complex thinker, but the intellectual deficiency required to achieve that level of arrogance and ignorance is staggering.

Anyone with even a child’s grasp of race understands that for many minorities success isn’t synonymous with the absence of obstacles, but often requires the overcoming of obstacles. Furthermore, being willing to be entertained by someone isn’t the same as being willing to be led by them.

And finally, affinity and racial animosity can dwell together in the same soul. You can like and even admire a person of another race while simultaneously disparaging the race as a whole. One can even be attracted to persons of different races and still harbor racial animus toward their group. Generations of sexual predation and miscegenation during and after slavery in this country have taught us that.

Alas, simpletons have simple understandings of complex concepts.

But it is reactions like Limbaugh’s that lead many of the president’s supporters to believe that racial sensitivity is in retreat and racial hostility is on the rise.

To be sure, the Internet is rife with examples of derogatory, overtly racial comments and imagery referring to the president and his family. But the question remains: Are we seeing an increase in racial hostility or simply an elevation — or uncovering — of it? And are those racist attitudes isolated or do they represent a serious problem?

Much of the discussion about the president, his opposition and his race has centered on the Tea Party, fairly or not.

In one take on race and the Tea Party that went horribly wrong this week, Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen wrote:

“Today’s G.O.P. is not racist, as Harry Belafonte alleged about the Tea Party, but it is deeply troubled — about the expansion of government, about immigration, about secularism, about the mainstreaming of what used to be the avant-garde. People with conventional views must repress a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children. (Should I mention that Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, used to be a lesbian?) This family represents the cultural changes that have enveloped parts — but not all — of America. To cultural conservatives, this doesn’t look like their country at all.”

What exactly are “conventional views” in this context? They appear to refer specifically to opinions about the color of people’s skin.

Cohen seemed to want to recast racial intolerance — and sexual identity discomfort — in a more humane light: as an extension of traditional values rather than as an artifact of traditional bigotry. In addition, Cohen’s attempt to absolve the entirety of the Tea Party without proof fails in the same way that blanket condemnations do. Overreach is always the enemy.

I don’t know what role, if any, race plays in the feelings of Tea Party supporters. It is impossible to know the heart of another person (unless they unambiguously reveal themselves), let alone the hearts of millions.

But nerves are raw, antennas are up and race has become a lightning rod in the Obama era. This is not Obama’s doing, but the simple result of his being.

    Disrespect, Race and Obama, NYT, 15.11.2013,






$10 Minimum Wage Proposal

Has Growing Support From White House


November 7, 2013
The New York Times


The White House has thrown its weight behind a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.

“The president has long supported raising the minimum wage so hard-working Americans can have a decent wage for a day’s work to support their families and make ends meet,” a White House official said.

President Obama, the official continued, supports the Harkin-Miller bill, also known as the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, from its current $7.25.

The legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Tom Harkin of Iowa and in the House by George Miller of California, both Democrats. It would raise the minimum wage — in three steps of 95 cents each, taking place over two years — to $10.10, and then index it to inflation. The legislation will probably be coupled with some tax sweeteners for small businesses, traditionally the loudest opponents of increases to the minimum wage.

“The combination of an increase to $10.10 and some breaks for small business on expensing unite virtually the whole Democratic caucus, and we are prepared to move forward shortly,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat.

Jason Furman, the chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, attended a Senate luncheon on Thursday with a focus on raising the minimum wage. One official at the luncheon said that some Democratic senators from more conservative states favored an increase to $9 an hour, but including the expensing provision was enough of a sweetener to bring them behind the $10.10 proposal.

Under that provision, small businesses would be able to deduct the total cost of investments in equipment or expansions, up to a maximum of $500,000 in the first year. Including such a provision helped persuade the Senate to vote overwhelmingly in favor of the last two minimum wage increases.

Democratic strategists say they are backing a higher minimum wage to help lift millions of low-wage workers at a time of increasing income inequality. Some also acknowledge that pushing a higher minimum wage is a way to put Republicans on the spot — caught between a business lobby and many conservatives who oppose an increased minimum wage and a public that strongly supports a higher minimum.

In his State of the Union speech in February, Mr. Obama called for a federal minimum wage of $9 an hour. But there has been little movement in Washington on that front, despite action at the state level. Some states set their minimum wage above the federal minimum, and in September, California passed a law that will steadily raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.

Washington State currently has the highest state minimum wage at $9.19 an hour, a level indexed to inflation. Some cities have higher wages, including San Francisco, where the wage minimum is $10.55. On Tuesday, New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment, by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, that will raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour on Jan. 1, from $7.25. That measure includes annual increases based on inflation.

On March 15, the House voted 233 to 184 against a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015. The proposal came as an amendment to a job-training bill, and all 227 Republican members voted against the increase.

In July, on the fourth anniversary of the most recent minimum wage increase, Mr. Harkin and Mr. Miller stepped up their effort, citing a poll by Hart Research that found that 80 percent of Americans support increasing the minimum to $10.10. The Hart poll found that 92 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans backed their proposal.

Mr. Miller said that he was confident that the House would vote to approve a higher minimum wage next summer because he thought several dozen Republicans would back the measure for fear of angering moderate-income voters as the Congressional elections approach.

Economists are somewhat more divided than the public about the effects of a minimum-wage increase, with conservatives concerned that raising the cost of labor could reduce the total number of low-wage workers employed.

But at least one well-regarded study found that raising the minimum wage increased employment of low-wage workers.

    $10 Minimum Wage Proposal Has Growing Support From White House,
    NYT, 7.11.2013,






Spying Known at Top Levels,

Officials Say


October 29, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The nation’s top spymaster said on Tuesday that the White House had long been aware in general terms of the National Security Agency’s overseas eavesdropping, stoutly defending the agency’s intelligence-gathering methods and suggesting possible divisions within the Obama administration.

The official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the N.S.A. had kept senior officials in the National Security Council informed of surveillance it was conducting in foreign countries. He did not specifically say whether President Obama was told of these spying efforts, but he appeared to challenge assertions in recent days that the White House had been in the dark about some of the agency’s practices.

Mr. Clapper and the agency’s director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, vigorously rejected suggestions that the agency was a rogue institution, trawling for information on ordinary citizens and leaders of America’s closest allies, without the knowledge of its Washington overseers.

Their testimony came amid mounting questions about how the N.S.A. collects information overseas, with Republicans and Democrats calling for a congressional review, lawmakers introducing a bill that would curb its activities and Mr. Obama poised to impose his own constraints, particularly on monitoring the leaders of friendly nations. At the same time, current and former American intelligence officials say there is a growing sense of anger with the White House for what they see as attempts to pin the blame for the controversy squarely on them.

General Alexander said news media reports that the N.S.A. had vacuumed up tens of millions of telephone calls in France, Italy and Spain were “completely false.” That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the intelligence services of those countries and provided to the N.S.A.

Still, both he and Mr. Clapper said that spying on foreign leaders — even those of allies — was a basic tenet of intelligence tradecraft and had gone on for decades. European countries, Mr. Clapper said, routinely seek to listen in on the conversations of American leaders.

“Some of this reminds me of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’ — ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here,’ ” Mr. Clapper said, twisting the line from the movie uttered by a corrupt French official who feigns outrage at the very activity in which he avidly partakes.

Asked whether the White House knows about the N.S.A.’s intelligence-gathering, including on foreign leaders, Mr. Clapper said, “They can and do.” But, he added, “I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.”

The White House has faced criticism for the N.S.A.’s surveillance practices since the first revelations by a former agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, in June. But in recent weeks it has struggled to quell a new diplomatic storm over reports that the agency monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for more than a decade. White House officials said that the president did not know of that surveillance, but that he has told Ms. Merkel that the United States is not monitoring her phone now and would not in the future.

On Wednesday, a delegation of senior German officials is scheduled to meet at the White House with Mr. Clapper, the president’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice; his homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco; and other officials.

Several current and former American officials said that presidents and their senior national security advisers have long known about which foreign leaders the United States spied on.

“It would be unusual for the White House senior staff not to know the exact source and method of collection,” said Michael Allen, a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration and a former staff director for the House Intelligence Committee. “That information helps a policy maker assess the reliability of the intelligence.”

Mr. Allen, the author of book about intelligence reform called “Blinking Red,” said this information often comes to the president during preparation for phone calls or meetings with the foreign leaders.

The White House declined to discuss intelligence policies, pending the completion of a review of intelligence-gathering practices that will be completed in December. But a senior administration official noted that the vast majority of intelligence that made it into Mr. Obama’s daily intelligence briefings focused on potential threats, from Al Qaeda plots to Iran’s nuclear program.

“These are front-burner, first-tier issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “He’s not getting many briefings on intelligence about Germany.”

Another senior administration official said that Mr. Obama did not generally rely on intelligence reports to prepare for meetings or phone calls with Ms. Merkel.

“He knows her well, he speaks with her regularly and our governments work together every day on a wide range of issues,” said this official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic concerns. “Because we talk so frequently, we know where they stand and they know where we stand on most issues.”

Mr. Clapper and General Alexander got a warm reception from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, who defended the N.S.A.’s methods and said he had been adequately briefed about its activities.

But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the outrage among America’s allies was clearly fueling concern.

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the fiercest defenders of American surveillance operations, said Monday that she did “not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” Ms. Feinstein said her committee would be conducting a “major review” of the intelligence programs.

Another strong defender of the N.S.A., Speaker John A. Boehner, agreed that “there needs to be review, there ought to be review and it ought to be thorough,” he said. “We’ve got obligations to the American people to keep them safe. We’ve got obligations to our allies around the world.”

“But having said that, we’ve got to find the right balance here,” he added. “We’re imbalanced as we stand here.”

An aide to Mr. Boehner said, “The speaker still believes our surveillance programs save lives, but the president needs to do a better job of managing and explaining them.”

On Tuesday, House Democrats and Republicans introduced a bill that would curb some of the N.S.A.’s practices, including the bulk collection of telephone data inside the United States.

“The picture drawn is one of a surveillance system run amok,” said Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, a sponsor of the bill. “Our intelligence community has operated without proper congressional oversight or regard for Americans’ privacy and civil liberties.”

Even on the House Intelligence Committee, members sparred over what they had been told by the intelligence agencies about eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat and a senior member of the committee, said that he had first learned about the practice after the recent news media reports.

“Would you consider that a wiretap of a leader of an allied country would be a significant intelligence activity requiring a report to the intelligence committees?” Mr. Schiff asked Mr. Clapper.

Mr. Clapper said the agencies had “lived up to the letter and spirit of that requirement.”

Mr. Schiff disagreed, saying that the agencies had much work to do “to make sure we’re getting the information we need.” He said that disclosures about such eavesdropping could create significant “blowback.”

Mr. Rogers disputed Mr. Schiff’s claim, saying that Mr. Schiff needed to take the time to educate himself about what the committee had been briefed on.

“To make the case that somehow we are in the dark is mystifying to me,” Mr. Rogers said. “It is disingenuous to imply that this committee did not have a full and complete understanding of activities of the intelligence community as was directed under the national intelligence priority framework to include sources and methods.”


Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting.

    Spying Known at Top Levels, Officials Say, NYT, 29.10.2013,






Obama May Ban Spying

on Heads of Allied States


October 28, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama is poised to order the National Security Agency to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American allies, administration and congressional officials said Monday, responding to a deepening diplomatic crisis over reports that the agency had for years targeted the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

The White House informed a leading Democratic lawmaker, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, of its plans, which grew out of a broader internal review of intelligence-gathering methods, prompted by the leak of N.S.A. documents by a former contractor, Edward J. Snowden.

In a statement on Monday, Ms. Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” Ms. Feinstein, who has been a stalwart defender of the administration’s surveillance policies, said her committee would begin a “major review of all intelligence collection programs.”

The White House said Monday evening that no final decision had been made on the monitoring of friendly foreign leaders. But the disclosure that it is moving to prohibit it signals a landmark shift for the N.S.A., which has had nearly unfettered powers to collect data on tens of millions of people around the world, from ordinary citizens to heads of state, including the leaders of Brazil and Mexico.

It is also likely to prompt a fierce debate on what constitutes an American ally. Prohibiting eavesdropping on Ms. Merkel’s phone is an easier judgment than, for example, collecting intelligence on the military-backed leaders in Egypt.

“We have already made some decisions through this process and expect to make more,” said a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin M. Hayden, adding that the review would be completed in December.

Disclosure of the White House’s proposed action came after the release on Monday afternoon of Ms. Feinstein’s statement, in which she asserted that the White House had told her it would cease all intelligence collection in friendly countries. That statement, senior administration officials said, was “not accurate,” but they acknowledged that they had already made unspecified changes in surveillance policy and planned further changes, particularly in the monitoring of government leaders.

The administration will reserve the right to continue collecting intelligence in friendly countries that pertains to criminal activity, potential terrorist threats and the proliferation of unconventional weapons, according to several officials. It also appeared to be leaving itself room in the case of a foreign leader of an ally who turned hostile or whose actions posed a threat to the United States.

The crossed wires between the White House and Ms. Feinstein were an indication of how the furor over the N.S.A.’s methods is testing even the administration staunchest defenders.

Aides said the senator’s six-paragraph statement reflected exasperation at the N.S.A. for failing to keep the Intelligence Committee fully apprised of such politically delicate operations as eavesdropping on the conversations of friendly foreign leaders.

“She believes the committee was not adequately briefed on the details of these programs, and she’s frustrated,” said a committee staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “In her mind, there were salient omissions.”

The review that Ms. Feinstein announced would be “a major undertaking,” the staff member said.

The White House has faced growing outrage in Germany and among other European allies over its surveillance policies. Senior officials from Ms. Merkel’s office and the heads of Germany’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies plan to travel to Washington in the coming days to register their anger.

They are expected to ask for a no-spying agreement similar to what the United States has with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which are known as the Five Eyes.

The United States has historically resisted such agreements, even with friendly governments, though it explored a similar arrangement with France early in the Obama administration. But officials said they would give the Germans, in particular, a careful hearing.

“We have intel relationships that are already very close,” said a senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. “There are other types of agreements you could have: cooperation, limits on intelligence, greater transparency. The countries on the top of the list for those are close European allies.”

The National Security Agency has said it did not inform Mr. Obama of its reported monitoring of Ms. Merkel, which appears to have started in 2002 and was not suspended until sometime last summer after the theft of the N.S.A. data by Mr. Snowden was discovered.

“At that point it was clear that lists of targeted foreign officials may well become public,” said one official, “so many of the interceptions were suspended.”

The N.S.A.’s documentation on Ms. Merkel’s case authorized the agency’s operatives in Germany not only to collect data about the numbers she was calling, but also to listen in on her conversations, according to current and former administration officials.

It was unclear whether excerpts from Ms. Merkel’s conversations appeared in intelligence reports that were circulated in Washington or shared with the White House. Officials said they had never seen information attributed to an intercept of Ms. Merkel’s conversations. But they said it was likely that some conversations had been recorded simply because the N.S.A. had focused on her for so long.

In both public comments and private interchanges with German officials, the Obama administration has refused to confirm that Ms. Merkel’s phone was targeted, though it has said that it is not the subject of N.S.A. action now, and will not be in the future.

The refusal to talk about the past has further angered German officials, who have said the surveillance has broken trust between two close allies. The Germans were particularly angry that the operation appears to have been run from inside the American Embassy or somewhere near it, in the heart of Berlin, steps from the Brandenburg Gate.

None of the officials and former officials who were interviewed would speak directly about the decision to target Ms. Merkel, saying that information was classified. But they said the legal distinction between tapping a conversation and simply collecting telephone “metadata” — essentially the kind of information about a telephone call that would be found on a telephone bill — existed only for domestic telephone calls, or calls involving United States citizens.

To record the conversation of a “U.S. Person,” the intelligence agencies would need a warrant. But no such distinction applies to intercepting the calls of foreigners, on foreign soil — though those intercepts may be a violation of local law.

That means that the intercepts of other world leaders could have also involved both information about the calls and the conversations themselves.

Dennis C. Blair, Mr. Obama’s first director of national intelligence, declined to speak specifically about the Merkel case. But he noted that “in our intelligence relationship with countries like France and Germany, 90 to 95 percent of our activity is cooperative and sharing, and a small proportion is about gaining intelligence we can’t obtain in other ways.”

He said he had little patience for the complaints of foreign leaders. “If any foreign leader is talking on a cellphone or communicating on unclassified email, what the U.S. might learn is the least of their problems.”

In addition to the Germans, European Union officials and members of the European Parliament are descending on Washington to deliver a tough message: The N.S.A.’s surveillance is unacceptable and has eroded trust between the United States and Europe.

“The key message is there is a problem,” said Silvia Kofler, a spokeswoman for the European Union. “We need to re-establish the trust between partners. You don’t spy on partners.”

One potential threat, Ms. Kofler said, was to the negotiation of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, one of Mr. Obama’s major trade initiatives. European Union officials, she said, were anxious to keep those talks on track but would require unspecified “confidence-building measures” to restore trust between the two sides.

An administration official said the White House would take these visits seriously, having senior officials from several government agencies and the White House meet with the Germans, though no meetings have yet been scheduled.


Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

    Obama May Ban Spying on Heads of Allied States, NYT, 28.10.2013,






The White House on Spying


October 28, 2013
The New York Times


The White House response on Monday to the expanding disclosures of American spying on foreign leaders, their governments and millions of their citizens was a pathetic mix of unsatisfying assurances about reviews under way, platitudes about the need for security in an insecure age, and the odd defense that the president didn’t know that American spies had tapped the German chancellor’s cellphone for 10 years.

Is it really better for us to think that things have gone so far with the post-9/11 idea that any spying that can be done should be done and that nobody thought to inform President Obama about tapping the phone of one of the most important American allies?

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, kept repeating that Mr. Obama ordered a review of surveillance policy a few months ago, but he would not confirm whether that includes the tapping of the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, or the collection of data on tens of millions of calls in France, Spain and elsewhere. It’s unlikely that Mr. Obama would have ordered any review if Edward Snowden’s leaks had not revealed the vacuum-cleaner approach to electronic spying. Mr. Carney left no expectation that the internal reviews will produce any significant public accounting — only that the White House might have “a little more detail” when they are completed.

Fortunately, members of Congress have been more aggressive in responding to two broad disclosures. One, that both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations misinterpreted the Patriot Act to permit the collection of metadata on phone calls, emails and text messages of all Americans, whether they were international or domestic. And, second, that the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were being stretched to excuse the routine collection of data from 60 million telephone calls in Spain and 70 million in France over two 30-day periods.

Legislation scheduled to be introduced on Tuesday by Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, would end the bulk collection of Americans’ communications data.

The administration has said that such data collection is permitted by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, although Mr. Sensenbrenner, who wrote that section, has said it is not. The bill, the U.S.A. Freedom Act, would require that the “tangible things” sought through data collection are “relevant and material to an authorized investigation into international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.” They would also have to pertain to a foreign power or its agent, activities of a foreign agent already under investigation or someone in touch with an agent.

Currently, the government conducts metadata collection by periodically vaguely informing a federal court in secret that it is working on security-related issues.

The bill would require a court order in order to search for Americans’ communications in data collected overseas, which falls under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and it would restrict “reverse targeting” — targeting a foreigner with the goal of getting information about an American. The bill would not address spying on foreigners, including such abuses as in the Merkel affair. Those activities are governed by a presidential order that is secret and certain to remain so.

We are not reassured by the often-heard explanation that everyone spies on everyone else all the time. We are not advocating a return to 1929 when Secretary of State Henry Stimson banned the decryption of diplomatic cables because “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” But there has long been an understanding that international spying was done in pursuit of a concrete threat to national security.

That Chancellor Merkel’s cellphone conversations could fall under that umbrella is an outgrowth of the post-9/11 decision by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that everyone is the enemy, and that anyone’s rights may be degraded in the name of national security. That led to Abu Ghraib, torture at the secret C.I.A. prisons, warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, grave harm to international relations, and the dragnet approach to surveillance revealed by the Snowden leaks.

    The White House on Spying, NYT, 28.10.2013,






Obama, at Brooklyn School,

Pushes Education Agenda


October 25, 2013
The New York Times


President Obama on Friday visited the innovative Brooklyn high school he praised in his State of the Union address this year, to deliver a message about the urgency of education reform in the global economy.

Mr. Obama, dressed in shirt sleeves, was showered with cheers by the visibly energized students and a cadre of New York politicians as he took the podium at Pathways in Technology Early College High School. “Hello Brooklyn,” he said, before starting into his argument for creating more schools like the one he was visiting, casting them as essential in preparing the next generation for competition in a shrinking world marketplace.

“This country should be doing everything in our power to give more kids the chance to go to schools just like this one,” the president said, calling the school, known as P-Tech, a ticket into the middle class.

“In previous generations, America’s standing economically was so much higher than everybody else’s that we didn’t have a lot of competition,” he added. “Now, you’ve got billions of people from Beijing to Bangalore to Moscow, all of whom are competing with you directly. And they’re — those countries are working every day, to out-educate and outcompete us.”

Mr. Obama’s wish list included preschool availability for every 4-year-old in the United States, access for every student to a high-speed Internet connection, lower college costs, redesigned high schools that teach the skills needed in a high-tech economy and greater investment in teachers. Some said they heard in his words a boost for the new, more rigorous academic standards that have been adopted around the nation, known as the Common Core, as he praised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others as having courage for raising standards for teachers.

“We should stay at it,” he said.

At one point, Mr. Obama zeroed in on Congress, imploring it to “do something” on education. One way to start, he said, was by “passing a budget that reflects our need to invest in our young people.”

He made a few sharper comments as well, referring to the recent government shutdown as a “manufactured crisis,” and suggesting that every member of Congress come to Brooklyn, to see P-Tech and to meet its students.

“If you think education is expensive,” he said at one point, “wait until you see how much ignorance costs.”

The crowd applauded.

Mr. Obama made his way to the school, in the borough where he once lived, after Marine One touched down in the shared outfield of a series of baseball fields in Prospect Park, kicking up a large cloud of dust and debris, and at least one gray T-shirt. Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, was there to greet the president, and the two rode together to the high school, in the Crown Heights neighborhood.

In his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama had said, “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” It was a reference to the way P-Tech’s students are given both high school and college curriculums in a six-year program that is tailored for a job in the technology industry.

When the first of those students graduate, in 2017, they are expected to have associate degrees in applied science, computer information systems or electromechanical engineering, having followed a course of studies developed in consultation with I.B.M.

In 2012, five P-Tech-styled schools opened in Chicago, in collaboration with companies like Microsoft, Motorola and Verizon. This year, two more schools modeled on P-Tech opened in New York City, with three more expected to open next year.

After his speech, Mr. Obama stopped at a Junior’s restaurant, on Flatbush Avenue, entering with Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee for mayor, and shaking hands with employees and patrons. “Do you know your next mayor here?” the president asked, before ordering two cheesecakes, one plain and one strawberry.

All the excitement of a presidential visit aside, the education historian Diane Ravitch said the day’s events perhaps concealed a subtle truth: The federal government has “never had a large role in public education,” and provides a razor-thin portion of its overall revenues.

In fact, Ms. Ravitch pointed out that the federal Education Department “is prohibited by law from interfering with curriculum or instruction.”

On the streets around P-Tech, though, no one seemed to note that fact.

Hours before Mr. Obama arrived, the signs of preparation were in evidence: Streets scrubbed clean, stray cars towed and metal barricades erected.

And Kiambu Gall, 16, was wearing brand-new shoes.

“Man, Obama’s coming,” Mr. Gall said as he stood with a half-a-dozen classmates on the corner of Albany Avenue and Bergen Street outside the school.

“Who else can say that?” he asked, displaying gleaming, blue-and-gray leather boat shoes. “What other students can say, ‘He came to our school.’ ”

It was roughly three hours before Mr. Obama came to make his pitch, from a lectern in the gymnasium. But Mr. Gall and his fellow 11th-graders, among the lucky students picked to meet the president in a math class, were recounting their preparatory drills.

Radcliffe Saddler, 16, was assigned to introduce the president. (He had a haircut for the occasion and got a hug from Mr. Obama, at the podium.) Leslieanne John, 16, who plans to become a lawyer and who was chosen to sing the national anthem, was reciting her mother’s advice: “Set your eyes on one point and don’t mess up the words.”

Spencer Jones, 15, still wondered what to say to Mr. Obama.

“Something like, he should make more schools like ours,” he said.

Hours later, at a fund-raiser in Manhattan, the president was still talking about his afternoon at P-Tech and the optimism he saw among the students. “That’s what Washington should be about every single day,” he said.

    Obama, at Brooklyn School, Pushes Education Agenda, NYT, 25.10.2013,






Government Shutting Down in Impasse


September 30, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A flurry of last-minute moves by the House, Senate and White House late Monday failed to break a bitter budget standoff over President Obama’s health care law, setting in motion the first government shutdown in nearly two decades.

After a series of rapid-fire back and forth legislative maneuvers, leaders of the House and Senate acknowledged there would not be a resolution in time to stop a shutdown before a midnight deadline, even as the House took steps to open talks. But Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, dismissed as game-playing the House proposal to begin conference committee negotiations.

“We will not go to conference with a gun to our heads,” he said, demanding that the House accept the Senate’s six-week stopgap spending bill, which has no policy prescriptions, before negotiations begin.

The impasse meant that 800,000 federal workers were to be furloughed and more than a million others would be asked to work without pay. The Office of Management and Budget issued orders that “agencies should now execute plans for an orderly shutdown due to the absence of appropriations” because Congress had failed to act.

In the hours leading up the deadline, House Republican leaders won approval, in a vote of 228 to 201, of a new plan to tie further government spending to a one-year delay in a requirement that individuals buy health insurance. The House proposal would deny federal subsidies to members of Congress, Capitol Hill staff, executive branch political appointees, White House staff, and the president and vice president, who would be forced to buy their health coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s new insurance exchanges.

But 57 minutes later, and with almost no debate, the Senate killed the House health care provisions and sent the stopgap spending bill right back, free of policy prescriptions. Earlier in the day, the Senate had taken less than 25 minutes to convene and dispose of a weekend budget proposal by the House Republicans.

“They’ve lost their minds,” Mr. Reid said, before disposing of the House bill. “They keep trying to do the same thing over and over again.”

The federal government was then left essentially to run out of money at midnight, the end of the fiscal year, although the president signed a measure late Monday that would allow members of the military to continue to be paid.

“One faction in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election,” Mr. Obama said in the White House briefing room as the clock ticked to midnight. “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job.”

Mr. Obama called House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, but they spoke for less than 10 minutes, without any sign of progress.

“I talked to the president tonight,” the speaker said on the House floor. He summed up Mr. Obama’s remarks as: “I’m not going to negotiate. I’m not going to negotiate.”

The House’s most ardent conservatives were resigned to seeing through their war on the health care law to its inevitable conclusion, a shutdown that could test voters’ patience with Republican brinkmanship.

“The fear shouldn’t be what’s going to happen at 12 o’clock tonight,” Representative Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota, said Monday night. “The fear needs to be on the future, what’s going to happen with jobs, what’s going to happen with health insurance for the American people.”

But cracks in the party were opening into fissures of frustration.

“You have this group that keeps saying somehow if you’re not with them, you’re for Obamacare,” said Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California. “If you’re not with exactly their plan, exactly what they want to do, then you’re somehow for Obamacare, and it’s just getting a little old.”

“It’s moronic to shut down the government over this,” he continued.

It was far from certain that Republicans could remain unified on their insistence on health care concessions if a shutdown lasted for some time. Asked whether Republicans could hold together through the end of the week, Representative Phil Gingrey of Georgia, one of the more conservative members, answered: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Earlier Monday, the Senate voted 54 to 46 along party lines to kill the previous House plan immediately after ending a weekend break. Senators then sent the House a bill to finance the government through Nov. 15 without policy prescriptions.

But House leaders would have none of it, again demanding a significant hit to the health law as a price for keeping the government open.

Mr. Reid laid into Mr. Boehner and put the blame for a shutdown solely on his shoulders. “Our negotiation is over with,” he said.

“You know with a bully you cannot let them slap you around, because they slap you around today, they slap you five or six times tomorrow,” Mr. Reid, a former boxer, continued. “We are not going to be bullied.”

In addition to criticizing Mr. Boehner, Mr. Reid excoriated what he called the “banana Republican mind-set” of the House. He called on the speaker to put the Senate bill up for a vote, which would almost certainly pass in the House because of overwhelming Democratic support and backing from moderate Republicans.

In one of their final moves, House Republicans attached language to a government funding bill that would delay the mandate that individuals obtain health insurance and would force members of Congress, their staffs and White House staff members to buy their health insurance on the new exchanges without any government subsidies.

Conservative activists have portrayed the language as ensuring that Congress and the White House would be held to the same strictures that apply to ordinary Americans under the health care law. In fact, the language would put poorly paid junior staff members at a disadvantage.

Most people buying coverage on the exchanges will receive subsidies through generous tax credits. Most Americans will still get their insurance from their employers, who will continue to receive a tax deduction for the cost of that care. Under the House language, lawmakers and their staffs, executive branch political appointees, the White House staff, and the president and vice president would have to pay the entire cost of health insurance out of pocket.

Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said junior staff members were “being used as a sacrifice” for a political gambit, driven by Republican hard-liners in the Senate like Ted Cruz of Texas, that will go nowhere.

“They locked themselves into this situation, the dead end that Ted Cruz created,” Mr. King said.

The budget confrontation — which threatened to close federal offices and facilities, idling thousands of workers around the country — stemmed from an unusual push by Republicans to undo a law that has been on the books for three years, through a presidential election, and that the Supreme Court largely upheld in 2012. A major part of the law is set to take effect Tuesday: the opening of insurance exchanges, where people without insurance will be able to obtain coverage.

Republicans argue that the administration has itself delayed elements of the law. They say it should be postponed for at least a year.

Democrats say Republicans are being driven by the most extreme elements of their party. “The scary thing about the period we’re in right now is there is no clear end,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.


Ashley Parker contributed reporting.

    Government Shutting Down in Impasse, NYT, 30.9.2013,






Honoring Navy Yard Victims,

Obama Asks:

‘Do We Care Enough’ to Change?


September 22, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama on Sunday eulogized the 12 victims of the Navy Yard shooting and lamented what he called a “creeping resignation” in America about the inevitability of gun violence.

In remarks to service members and their families who packed the bleachers in the barracks about two and a half blocks from where the killings took place last week, Mr. Obama vowed that he would not accept inaction after the latest in a string of mass shootings during his presidency.

But the president appeared exasperated with the political system that he leads, admitting that changes in the nation’s gun laws “will not come from Washington, even when tragedy strikes Washington.” He acknowledged that his previous effort to pass new gun laws had failed, but he did not specifically call for a new political battle, saying change would come only when Americans decide they have had enough.

The question is not, he said, “whether as Americans we care in moments of tragedy. Clearly we care. Our hearts are broken again. The question is do we care enough?”

“It ought to be a shock to all of us, as a nation and a people,” he said. “It ought to obsess us. It ought to lead to some sort of transformation.”

In his remarks to about 4,000 people, Mr. Obama called the Navy Yard shooting “unique,” and he remembered by name each of the victims, offering small memories from family members and friends of those who died: a volunteer, a Bible study leader, a Navy architect, a grandmother, a soccer coach, a car lover.

“These are not statistics,” he said. “They are the lives that have been taken from us.”

But he said the Navy Yard shootings were part of a pattern of gun violence that set America apart among advanced nations. Together, he said, they represented a kind of tragedy that has become accepted as “somehow just the way it is.”

Before the ceremony, Mr. Obama and the first lady, Michelle Obama, met privately with family members of the victims.

It has become an all-too-familiar role for Mr. Obama, who has presided over similarly grim services for the victims of shootings in Newtown, Conn.; Tucson; Aurora, Colo.; Oak Creek, Wis.; and Fort Hood, Tex. At each event, the president has sought to find the right balance between the sadness of a nation and the anger of its citizens.

But past memorial services have also served to provide Mr. Obama with the emotional power to fuel his efforts to curb gun violence. During each event, the president has urged the nation to pass laws that would keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and mentally ill people.

That message reached a fever pitch after the service for the 20 children who died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, when Mr. Obama declared that it was time for Washington to take action.

“In the coming weeks,” he said at the Newtown memorial, “I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.”

That promise led to an effort by the administration to push through aggressive gun restrictions, including an expanded background-check system that would have closed loopholes that allowed guns to be sold without a check. But months later, that effort failed when the Senate could not pass a compromise background-check bill amid fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association and lawmakers who favor gun rights.

The president on Sunday did not specifically pledge to try again, noting that “the politics are difficult, as we saw this spring.” But he sought to reassure supporters of gun control measures that they would be successful, eventually, because of the grief that tragedies like the Navy Yard shooting produce.

“It may not happen tomorrow and it may not happen next week and it may not happen next month,” he said. “But it will happen, because it’s the change we need.

“Our tears are not enough,” he added. “Our words and our prayers are not enough.” If Americans want to honor the 12 men and women who died at the Navy Yard, he said, “we’re going to have to change. We’re going to have to change.”

Mr. Obama quoted from Robert F. Kennedy’s speech in the hours after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In that speech, the president said, Mr. Kennedy quoted a poet who wrote that “even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart” until later comes “wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

Mr. Obama ended his remarks by urging that “in our grief, let us seek that grace. Let us find that wisdom.”

The United States Navy Band played somber music as the guests quietly filed in ahead of the speakers, who included Vice Adm. William Hilarides, the commander of Naval Sea Systems Command, where the shootings took place.

Also speaking were Vincent Gray, the mayor of Washington; Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of naval operations; Ray Mabus, the secretary of the Navy; and Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense.

Mr. Gray echoed Mr. Obama’s frustration with the refusal to pass new gun laws, saying that “this time it happened within the view of our Capitol dome and I, for one, will not be silent about the fact that the time has come for action.”

Mr. Hagel declared that “together, we will recover.”

The memorial wound down with a reading of the names of the 12 people who were killed at the Navy Yard, and then a long, sad rendition of taps.

    Honoring Navy Yard Victims, Obama Asks: ‘Do We Care Enough’ to Change?,
    NYT, 22.9.2013,






His Options Few,

Obama Rebukes Egypt’s Leaders


August 15, 2013
The New York Times


CHILMARK, Mass. — President Obama announced Thursday that the United States had canceled longstanding joint military exercises with the Egyptian Army set for next month, using one of his few obvious forms of leverage to rebuke Egypt’s military-backed government for its brutal crackdown on supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi.

Though the decision is an embarrassment to Egypt’s generals, and will deprive Egypt of much-needed revenue, it lays bare both the Obama administration’s limited options to curb the military’s campaign against Islamists in Egypt and the United States’ role as an increasingly frustrated bystander.

Repeated pleas from administration officials to the generals to change course have gone unheeded, and the United States’ first punitive measure, a Pentagon delay in the delivery of four F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian Air Force, also had no effect.

Mr. Obama, interrupting his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to address the violence, struck a now-familiar balance. He expressed outrage at the harrowing scenes this week in Cairo and other cities, while taking pains to preserve the American relationship with the Egyptian armed forces, which are underwritten by the vast bulk of the $1.5 billion a year in military and economic aid.

With the death toll in Egypt soaring and no sign that the country’s generals are heeding American calls to stop the violence, however, administration officials said they now faced a more wrenching choice: to keep backing the generals, whatever the cost, or to admit that the current relationship is no longer tenable.

“While we want to sustain our relationship with Egypt, our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Mr. Obama said, reading a statement in front of his rented vacation house here, the sun-splashed trees an incongruous backdrop for his stark message.

In his remarks, Mr. Obama noted “it’s tempting” inside Egypt to blame the United States, saying that protesters accused it alternately of backing Mr. Morsi or colluding with those who ousted him. But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to be drawn into conflicts in the Mideast, from Syria to Bahrain, has frequently been criticized.

Until the latest eruption of violence, White House officials were still uncertain whether the Egyptian military might yet rewind history and give democracy a fresh chance, or if it was simply restoring the sort of autocracy that has dominated Egypt in the past. Now they said they seem to have the answer.

But while their frustration is palpable, officials said there were voices in favor of working with Egypt and of cutting off its aid, and they expected the debate would take time to play out.

White House officials said Mr. Obama issued the order to pull the United States out of the military exercises, known as Bright Star, in a phone call with his national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, on Wednesday evening. The Egyptians were notified before the president’s announcement, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel later spoke by telephone with Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.

Despite the large scale of the exercises, and the fact that they date to the 1980s, administration officials said they had few illusions that the decision would by itself stop the crackdown. Egypt’s military leaders, they said, regard the Islamist protests as an “existential threat” to the nation, which they must crush at all costs.

Mr. Obama said he had instructed his national security staff to weigh additional measures. He did not specify what those could be, though he said nothing about suspending the military aid. “We’ll be looking at both the case-by-case examples but also the more fundamental relationship,” said a senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “There’s a basic threshold where we can’t give a tacit endorsement to them.”

Given the deep schism in Egypt, this official said, the White House is still skeptical that cutting off aid would compel the generals to return the country to a democratic transition. And it could destabilize the region, particularly the security of Israel, whose 1979 peace treaty with Egypt is predicated on the aid.

For weeks, officials from Israel and several Arab countries have pressured the administration to maintain the flow of aid. If it were cut off, they said, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates would move quickly to make up the shortfall — and then some.

Saudi Arabia and the emirates pledged $8 billion in grants and loans to Egypt’s post-Morsi government last month: $5 billion from Saudi Arabia in grants and loans; $3 billion from the emirates. That is more than enough, analysts say, to offset any cutoff from the United States, even if the two countries do not fulfill their entire pledges.

Shutting off the aid spigot now would not have an immediate impact on the Egyptian military, defense officials say, because this year’s military assistance has already been delivered. Beyond money, Arab officials worry that a rupture between Washington and the Egyptian military would further erode American influence in a country that has historically been a bellwether in the Arab world, and would open the door to rivals like Russia or China.

“If the aid gets cut, you can be sure that Putin will arrive in Cairo in two or three months,” one senior Arab official said. “And he will give aid with no strings attached.”

Still, even with the aid flowing, Defense Department officials fear that whatever leverage the Pentagon might have had with Egypt’s military leadership is ebbing quickly. Since the military’s ouster of Mr. Morsi on July 3, Mr. Hagel has had more than 15 phone calls with General Sisi, pleading in vain for him to change course.

Mr. Hagel, in a statement on Thursday, said that in his latest exchange with the general, “I made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk.”

While administration officials acknowledge that Egypt could replace the lost American military aid, they said it would pay a long-term price in lost foreign investment and a ruined tourism industry — a point that Mr. Obama made in his statement on Thursday.

Some analysts said the administration had hurt itself by not undertaking a thorough review of its policy toward Egypt after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The United States, they said, was too wedded to the privileges it gained from the relationship, like fly-over rights and fast-track transit through the Suez Canal.

“They’ve limited their own options by believing the idea that in order to influence things, you need to remain engaged,” said Steven A. Cook, an expert on Egypt at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We’ve never tested the proposition of cutting them off.”

Other experts said Mr. Obama had few attractive alternatives and mainly wanted to keep out of the situation.

“Anything they do that is dramatic puts the United States in the middle of a story that we really don’t want to be in the middle of,” said Steven Simon, a former National Security Council official under Mr. Obama who is now head of the Washington office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton White House official who is now the executive director of the National Security Network, said the administration should cut off “targeted” cooperation with Egypt’s military without halting all aid. “No matter where you’re coming from ideologically,” she said, “the playing field we face in the Middle East is not the playing field we faced a month ago.”

Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who just returned from a trip to Cairo at Mr. Obama’s request, was sharply critical of the president for not acting more forcefully against the military takeover, citing a law requiring the cutoff of American aid to countries where a military coup has dislodged an elected government. Mr. McCain has said the Muslim Brotherhood needs to accept that Mr. Morsi will not be returned to power, but he has also urged the military to establish a democratic process. “We violated our own rule of law by not calling it for what it is,” Mr. McCain said on CNN. “We undercut our own values.”


Mark Landler reported from Chilmark,

and Peter Baker from Washington. Eric Schmitt

and Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington,

and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.

    His Options Few, Obama Rebukes Egypt’s Leaders, NYT, 15.8.2013,






Obama, Snowden and Putin


August 13, 2013
The New York Times


You only get one chance to make a second impression. It seems to me that Edward Snowden should use his and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has blown his.

Considering the breadth of reforms that President Obama is now proposing to prevent privacy abuses in intelligence gathering, in the wake of Snowden’s disclosures, Snowden deserves a chance to make a second impression — that he truly is a whistle-blower, not a traitor. The fact is, he dumped his data and fled to countries that are hostile to us and to the very principles he espoused. To make a second impression, Snowden would need to come home, make his case and face his accusers. It would mean risking a lengthy jail term, but also trusting the fair-mindedness of the American people, who, I believe, will not allow an authentic whistle-blower to be unfairly punished.

As for Putin, he blew his second impression — the reset in U.S.-Russian relations — long before he granted Snowden asylum. Dealing with Putin always involved a certain trade-off for America: accepting a degree of Putin authoritarianism in return for cooperation on global issues that mattered to us, as long as Putin “sort of” kept Russia moving toward a more open, consensual society. But the balance is not there anymore. Putin’s insistence on blocking any diplomacy on Syria that might move out “his guy,” President Bashar al-Assad, his abuse of Russian gays and lesbians, and his blatant use of rule-by-law tactics to silence any critics mean that we’re not getting anything from this relationship anymore, nor are many Russians.

But rather than punch Putin in the face, which would elevate him with his followers, it would be much better to hit him where it would really hurt by publicly challenging the notion that he is making Russia strong.

Here’s what Obama could have said when asked about Putin last week: “You know, back in 1979, President Putin’s brutal Soviet predecessors sent us Sergey Brin and his family. As you know, Brin later became the co-founder of Google. That was Russia’s loss, but a gift to us and to the world. We could not have enjoyed the benefits of search had the Soviets not made life so unattractive for Brin’s family. I make that point because Putin doesn’t seem interested in making life attractive in today’s Russia for the Sergey Brins of his generation. Putin only seems interested in sticking pipes in the ground and extracting oil and gas — rather than the talents of his own young people — and making sure that he and his cronies get their cut of the oil flow.

“Look what Putin just did. Sergei Guriev is one of the most talented of Russia’s new-generation economists. He was rector of one of the few world-class academic institutions left in Russia today: the New Economic School. Guriev was a loyal, liberal adviser to former President Dmitri Medvedev, but after he co-authored a report that criticized the conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned oil magnate, Putin’s goons began to harass him. He said they even demanded his e-mails going back five years. (Snowden beware.) Well, in the spring, Guriev fled to France, saying he feared losing his freedom, and he says he’s not going back.

“Sergei Guriev, come to America. Bring your friends. Bring the members of that band Putin put in jail, Pussy Riot, too. No creative person has any future in Putin’s Russia because he doesn’t understand the present: There are no ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries anymore. There are only H.I.E.’s (high imagination-enabling countries) and L.I.E.’s (low imagination-enabling countries). That is, countries that nurture innovation and innovators and those that don’t — in a world where so many more people can turn ideas into products, services, companies and jobs faster and cheaper than ever. Putin is building a political monoculture that will make Russia the lowest of low imagination-enabling countries.

“Putin prefers to rely instead on less educated, xenophobic rural populations, who buy into his anti-American, anti-gay trope that the world just wants to keep Russia down. As the revolution in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and energy efficiency spreads around the world, and oil and gas prices fall, Putin’s failure to invest in Russia’s human talent — which he won’t do because it means empowering and freeing them from his grasp — will become a big problem for Russia.”

That’s what I would have said. Do we lose anything by not having Putin’s help? You bet. Those who say we don’t need Russia are wrong. There is no major problem in the world today — Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, cybercrime, climate or drugs — that would not be easier to solve if the U.S. and Russia worked together. (It’s why I opposed NATO expansion.) But running against America is now essential to Putin’s domestic survival.

So there is no sense wasting more time with him. While he will not help us, he can’t do us serious harm. He can and is doing serious harm to Russia, by putting loyalty to him before competence. Any system that does that for long, dies.

You can Google it.

    Obama, Snowden and Putin, NYT, 13.8.2013,






Threats Test Obama’s

Balancing Act on Surveillance


August 9, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama has said he wants eventually to scale back drone strikes and steer the country away from a single-minded focus on counterterrorism. But in response to a vague yet ominous terror warning in recent days, his administration shut down nearly two dozen American embassies and consulates and waged an intense drone campaign in Yemen.

American officials speak of the need for vigorous debate about controversial National Security Agency programs revealed by Edward J. Snowden, and Mr. Obama on Friday promised greater accountability to keep the surveillance state in check. Yet his underlying message was clear: the expansive monitoring of telephone and electronic communications would continue because the safety of the country depended on it.

America’s war on terrorism may one day end, as Mr. Obama said in a speech in May, but until that happens the president has given every indication that it will be fought in much the same way it has for nearly 12 years. Even Mr. Obama’s promise of more transparency appeared to fail an instant test during his Friday news conference. Asked about the flurry of American drone strikes in Yemen, which have been reported by every news outlet, Mr. Obama demurred.

“I will not have a discussion about operational issues,” he said.

Mr. Obama, who ran for office in 2008 against what he described as the excesses of counterterrorism under President George W. Bush, has occasionally expressed ambivalence about drone strikes and aggressive surveillance. But with Republicans ever ready to pounce with accusations that he has made the country less safe, he has declined to abandon any of the tools used by his predecessor, with the sole exception of the brutal interrogation methods once used by the C.I.A.

The government’s striking response to the reported terror threat in recent days has coincided with a wave of unprecedented skepticism about the N.S.A.’s sweeping surveillance programs since Mr. Snowden’s disclosures.

When Mr. Snowden began releasing secret documents two months ago, Mr. Obama said he welcomed a debate on the trade-offs of N.S.A. surveillance and privacy. But the debate has grown far larger than administration officials anticipated, with lawmakers of both parties in Congress and half of Americans in polls calling for curbs on the agency.

On Thursday, two small companies providing secure e-mail to customers added their voices. Lavabit and Silent Circle announced that they would shut down their e-mail services rather than give in to what they suggested was government pressure to make customers’ messages available to the N.S.A.

In a message on his Web site, Ladar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, said he was forced “to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit.”

He said he was prohibited by law from explaining what had happened over the last six weeks, but the suggestion was that he was fighting a government demand for access to the e-mail of one or more customers.

Mr. Snowden’s disclosures have had a continuing, even escalating impact as journalists have continued to pore over them. On Thursday, for instance, The New York Times wrote that the N.S.A. was examining all e-mail messages in and out of the country and searching them for clues associated with terrorism or foreign intelligence.

On Friday, The Guardian, the British newspaper that has published many of Mr. Snowden’s revelations, wrote about a clause in N.S.A. rules that permits the agency to search for Americans’ names and identifying information in data about foreign targets gathered from large Internet companies.

In his remarks on Friday, Mr. Obama said he was satisfied that the N.S.A. programs were both necessary and respectful of Americans’ privacy. He acknowledged the “instinctive bias of the intelligence community to keep everything very close.” But he said he had urged America’s spies to err on the side of making more details public.

“Let’s just put the whole elephant out there, and examine what’s working,” he said.

On Friday evening, the State Department announced that nearly all of the embassies and consulates that had been closed this week would reopen on Sunday — with only the American Embassy in Sana, Yemen, remaining closed. The consulate in Lahore, Pakistan, will also stay closed, the result of what American officials said is a different threat from the one that had forced the closing of the other diplomatic posts.

With intelligence agencies try trying to piece together information about a terror plot allegedly discussed in recent weeks between senior Qaeda operatives, American drones delivered a flurry of missile strikes throughout Yemen.

Eight strikes have been carried out in Yemen in the past two weeks, a ferocious rate of drone attacks rivaled only by the two-week period after a suicide bomber killed seven C.I.A. employees at a base in Afghanistan in December 2009.

During his speech at National Defense University in May, President Obama said that targeted killing operations needed to be tightly constrained. The United States only carries out strikes against terrorists who pose a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans, the president said, and only when it is determined it would be impossible to detain them, rather than kill them.

And, Mr. Obama said, “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injure — the highest standard we can set.”

It is yet unknown who exactly was killed in Yemen during the past two weeks. Therefore, it is hard to judge the recent strikes against those standards the president laid out in May. Specifically, did the dozens of people reportedly killed all pose a “direct and imminent threat”? And, with American officials fearing that an attack could happen at any moment, just how much care was taken before each strike to determine that no civilians were in the missiles’ path?

At the very least, this extraordinary period of killing operations in Yemen has revealed just how much the president’s stated inclination to be more judicious about drone strikes is tested in a period of perceived crisis.

Striking a balance between liberty and security is a leitmotif in many of President Obama’s speeches, and on Friday he spoke of “rebalancing” the ledger after the demands of more than a decade of war.

But the changes he announced on Friday were incremental rather than radical — more of what he referred to as “tightening the bolts” rather than dismantling the machine itself.


Mark Mazzetti reported from Washington,

and Scott Shane from New York.

    Threats Test Obama’s Balancing Act on Surveillance, NYT, 9.8.2013,






President Moves

to Ease Worries on Surveillance


August 9, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday sought to take control of the roiling debate over the National Security Agency’s surveillance practices, releasing a more detailed legal justification for domestic spying and calling for more openness and scrutiny of the N.S.A.’s programs to reassure a skeptical public that its privacy is not being violated.

“It’s right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives,” Mr. Obama said, adding: “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.”

But at a time when leaks by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden have exposed the agency’s expansive spying both inside the United States and abroad to an unprecedented degree of scrutiny, Mr. Obama showed no inclination to curtail secret surveillance efforts. Rather, he conceded only a need for greater openness and safeguards to make the public “comfortable” with them.

In meeting threats to the country, Mr. Obama said, “we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms.” And while he said that the programs were valuable and that he was confident they had not been abused, he acknowledged that people “may want to jigger slightly” that balance.

Mr. Obama made his remarks at a wide-ranging news conference on the eve of his departure for a week’s vacation. He responded to questions on issues like the coming appointment of a new Federal Reserve chairman, the carrying out of his health care law, his relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and the current status of Al Qaeda. But he began with a lengthy statement about surveillance, and that was the focus of the nearly hourlong news conference.

Critics of the electronic spying brought to light by Mr. Snowden’s leaks said the president’s approach was insufficient. Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that a program that collects records of every domestic phone call — which Mr. Obama made clear he intends to keep — must be shut down.

“What’s clear is that these surveillance programs have gone much further than the president or Congress have ever admitted,” Mr. Romero said. “These initial recommendations from Obama today, albeit welcome, are too little too late. They are not sufficient to address serious concerns about possible violations of the law and about dragnet surveillance.”

A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, urged Mr. Obama not to let such criticism undermine the N.S.A.’s fundamental capabilities.

“Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the program,” said the spokesman, Brendan Buck. “That must be the president’s red line, and he must enforce it. Our priority should continue to be saving American lives, not saving face.”

A clear theme of Mr. Obama’s remarks was that he believed that the public’s understanding of the surveillance programs had been distorted. He portrayed some of Mr. Snowden’s leaks as having been reported in “the most sensationalized manner possible” and parceled out to “maximize attention” in “dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways.” The result has been misimpressions not merely among the American public, he said, but around the world — a reference to the widespread international criticism of the United States over reports of its surveillance policies.

“If you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying ‘U.S. Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, etc.,’ well, understandably people would be concerned,” he said, while also addressing some of his reassurances to those abroad.

“To others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people,” he said. “Our intelligence is focused above all on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people and, in many cases, protect our allies. It’s true we have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do.”

In an effort to rebuild public trust, Mr. Obama said he wanted to work with Congress to modify the phone log program, but in what he said would be an “appropriate” way. He listed as examples of those steps establishing more oversight and auditing how the database is used.

The president also threw his support behind a proposal to change the procedures of the secret court that approves electronic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, saying an adversarial lawyer should make arguments opposing the Justice Department when the court is considering whether to approve broad surveillance programs.

The administration also released a 22-page unclassified “white paper” explaining in greater detail why the government believes that its bulk collection of domestic phone logs is lawful. At the same time, the N.S.A. released a seven-page paper outlining its role and authorities. The agency is creating a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, Mr. Obama said, and next week it will open a Web site designed to explain itself better to the public.

“We can and must be more transparent,” Mr. Obama said.

In addition, Mr. Obama announced the creation of a task force that will include outside intelligence specialists and civil liberties advocates to advise the government about how to balance security and privacy as improving computer technology makes it possible to gather ever more information about people’s private lives.

In response to a reporter’s question, Mr. Obama obliquely acknowledged the terrorism alert in the Middle East that in recent days has prompted the withdrawals of embassy staff members in Yemen and other countries. He was asked how to square the apparent threat from Al Qaeda with his previous portrayals of the core of the group as severely weakened.

Mr. Obama said that the original Al Qaeda — the tightly organized, hierarchical group that was capable of “spectacular homeland attacks” like the ones on Sept. 11, 2001 — was indeed “decimated.” But its regional affiliates still pose a “destabilizing and disruptive” threat on the scale of potentially driving “a truck bomb into an embassy wall,” he said.

“We’ve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists who are potentially carrying out plots,” he said, adding: “This is an ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.”

The news conference also dwelled on Mr. Snowden’s obtaining temporary refugee status in Russia, and the cooling relationship with the Putin government over that and several other issues, including the conflict in Syria and Russia’s crackdown on gay rights. Earlier in the week, Mr. Obama canceled a planned summit meeting with Mr. Putin in Moscow.

While Mr. Obama said he opposed calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, he acknowledged “emerging differences” with his Russian counterpart.

Asked whether the steps on surveillance he was taking amounted to a vindication of Mr. Snowden’s leaks, Mr. Obama rejected that notion. He said that Mr. Snowden should have gone to the Congressional intelligence committees with any concerns he had about surveillance, rather than “putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.”

“I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot,” Mr. Obama said.

    President Moves to Ease Worries on Surveillance, NYT, 9.8.2013,






Obama Outlines Plans

for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac


August 6, 2013
The New York Times


PHOENIX — President Obama hailed both this city’s and the country’s comeback from the housing bust on Tuesday, and said it was now time to reduce the federal role and risk in the mortgage market “to make sure the kind of crisis we went through never happens again.”

He proposed to “wind down” Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for the first time outlining his approach to overhauling the two giant mortgage-finance companies that were taken over by the government when they failed nearly five years ago. The companies, which Mr. Obama described in an appearance here as “not really government, but not really private sector,” recently began to repay taxpayers.

“For too long, these companies were allowed to make big profits buying mortgages, knowing that if their bets went bad, taxpayers would be left holding the bag,” the president said. “It was ‘heads we win, tails you lose.’ ”

Since early 2011, the administration has voiced support for overhauling Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which long benefited from an implicit government guarantee. Years ago the companies came to symbolize a self-dealing Washington culture beneficial to both parties, and especially Democrats, but Mr. Obama’s remarks on what comes next were his most specific. For several years, the administration held back from revamping the mortgage-finance system for fear of rattling a weakened market.

Mr. Obama on Tuesday endorsed the thrust of bipartisan legislation from a Senate group that would “end Fannie and Freddie as we know them.” The so-called government-sponsored enterprises for decades bought and sold mortgages from financial institutions to provide money for the banks to keep lending to home buyers.

Under Mr. Obama’s principles, which he said were reflected in the Senate bill taking shape, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would further shrink their portfolios and lose the implicit guarantee of a federal government bailout. Instead, private investors would be most at risk, with the government a secondary guarantor.

“First, private capital should take a bigger role in the mortgage markets. I know that sounds confusing to folks who call me a socialist,” Mr. Obama said, drawing laughs and applause. “I believe that our housing system should operate where there’s a limited government role,” he added, “and private lending should be the backbone of the housing market.”

The president said that any measure he signed into law “should preserve access to safe and simple mortgage products like the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.”

“That’s something families should be able to rely on when they’re making the most important purchase of their lives,” he said.

Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia who is part of the bipartisan effort on the Senate banking committee, welcomed the president’s endorsement. “It’s good to see additional momentum,” he said in a statement.

Brian Gardner, a senior vice president in Washington at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, wrote to clients that Mr. Obama’s address on mortgage finance was “important because the administration has not discussed it in some time.” Despite the presidential push, he said, Congress is not likely to approve a bill before 2015.

Separate legislation in the Republican-controlled House would remove the government from the mortgage market, including from the decision whether to keep providing the 30-year mortgage. But Mr. Gardner wrote that even “many free market proponents acknowledge that the government will play some backstop role in a future system” and be compensated for it.

After years in which the formerly formidable Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their Congressional allies blocked proposals requiring some kind of fees or risk premiums, Mr. Obama is calling for an assessment to be paid to the government on the value of mortgage-backed securities.

Under his proposals, the revenue from an assessment would help finance aid for borrowers and the construction of houses and rental properties that lower-income Americans could afford.

Mr. Obama’s focus was homeownership. But he emphasized the need for more affordable rental housing more than he had before. Advocates have called for a “rebalance” of government subsidies, which they say have too long been skewed toward homeownership and mostly benefit the affluent.

“In the run-up to the crisis, banks and the government too often made everyone feel like they had to own a home, even if they weren’t ready and didn’t have the payment,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s a mistake we shouldn’t repeat,” he said. “Instead, let’s invest in affordable rental housing.”

Mr. Obama purposely spoke in Phoenix, where weeks after taking office he first announced his ideas for providing relief to homeowners and stemming foreclosures. Here, as in much of the nation, home values and sales are up, and foreclosures are down. Before arriving at a high school gym packed with an enthusiastic crowd, he visited a housing construction company that has quintupled its work force since the bust.

But as he often does, Mr. Obama tempered his celebration of better times, and his administration’s role in helping to reach them, with acknowledgment that the recovery was not complete.

“The truth is, it’s been a long, slow process,” he conceded. “But during that time we’ve helped millions of Americans save an average of $3,000 each year by refinancing at lower rates. We’ve helped millions of responsible homeowners stay in their homes, which was good for their neighbors because you don’t want a bunch of foreclosure signs in your neighborhood.”

    Obama Outlines Plans for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, NYT, 6.8.2013,




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