WASHINGTON — Responding to critics, President Barack Obama promised on Friday to work with Congress on "appropriate reforms" for the domestic surveillance programs that have stirred criticism at home and abroad. He also said it is time to recalibrate the United States' relationship with Russia, which is harboring NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden.
"It's not enough for me to have confidence in these programs," the president declared of NSA domestic intelligence-gathering programs at a White House news conference, one day before his scheduled departure on a weeklong vacation. "The American people have to have confidence in them as well."
The president announced a series of changes in a program begun under the anti-terror Patriot Act that was passed in the wake of the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001. But none of the moves would alter the basic core of the program, the collection of millions of Americans' phone records.
As for Snowden, recently granted temporary asylum by Russia, Obama said he is not a patriot, as some have suggested, and challenged him to return to the United States to face espionage charges.
On Russia, Obama said that given recent differences over Syria, human rights and Snowden, it is "probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going ... and recalibrate the relationship."
The hour-long news conference ranged over numerous issues, although the president became especially animated when the questions turned to Republicans in Congress. He said they would risk the wrath of the public if they vote to shut down the government this fall in an attempt to cut off funding for his signature health care law.
And on another congressional issue, he said that while he was open to House Republicans proposing an alternative immigration bill, his preference was for a vote on a Senate-passed measure that would combine border security with a chance at citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.
He said he was "absolutely certain" such a bill would pass in the GOP-controlled U.S. House.
He did not mince words about the United States' deteriorating relationship with Russia. He said President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to grant asylum to Snowden was merely the latest in a series of differences between the two countries, including a response to the Syrian civil war and to human rights issues.
"I've encouraged Mr. Putin to look forward rather than backward," Obama said, evoking memories of relations between the United States and the former Soviet Union.
The president, who just this week canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin, said he does not want the United States to boycott the upcoming 2014 Olympics scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia, as a protest against Russian treatment of homosexuals.
"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we're seeing here," he said. "And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker."