In final 2013 press conference, Obama promises NSA spying changes, says Snowden "under indictment"

President Barack Obama holds his year-end news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, December 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

In the last press conference of the year, President Obama today indicated he may order changes to the National Security Agency's programs that gather and store the phone communications records of millions of Americans, and instead "require phone companies to hold the data." He promised a "pretty definitive statement" on NSA reforms in January, after he returns from an annual holiday vacation in Hawaii — coincidentally, where it all started with Edward Snowden about a year ago.

From the The Washington Post:

"It is possible that some of the same information . . . can be obtained by having private phone companies keep those records longer" and allowing the government to search them under tight guidelines, Obama said.

That prospect has drawn fire from privacy advocates and technology experts, who say it would be as bad as or worse than having the NSA hold the records. Phone companies also do not want to be the custodians of data sought by law enforcement or civil attorneys.

"Mandatory data retention is a major civil liberties problem and something that other groups would oppose categorically," said Rainey Reitman, activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And at that same press conference Friday, Obama said NSA leaker and former contractor Edward Snowden "is under indictment." A senior law enforcement official later said Obama simply misspoke.

Caitlin Hayden, a White House spokeswoman for the national security division, confirmed that "the president was referring to the unsealed criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia," not an indictment.

In an editorial Friday, the New York Times editorial board says it is not impressed with Obama's promises of NSA reforms in the new year: "any actions that Mr. Obama may announce next month would certainly not be adequate."

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.