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The method to Obama's silence on spying reforms

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President Obama has been taking a hands-off approach to overhauling government surveillance methods. (iStock Photo)

President Obama has been taking a hands-off approach to overhauling government surveillance methods, a tactic designed to avoid a repeat of the political beating the White House took when the spying practices were exposed nearly two years ago.

As lawmakers grapple with the June 1 expiration of the Patriot Act — and the authorization for the bulk collection of Americans' information — Obama has remained on the sidelines, opting to let Congress wade through how best to balance protecting the homeland and privacy rights.

The silence from the White House has angered privacy advocates looking to end what they view as an abuse of government power that is of little counterterrorism value.

Just more than a year ago, Obama proposed that metadata remain stored with the telephone companies. The National Security Agency would have access to that data only through individual court orders, the president said.

Since then, the president has done virtually nothing to win approval for his reforms on Capitol Hill. Instead, he has quietly requested and received approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court five times to continue the bulk collection of the public's metadata.

Insiders suggest Obama is angling to position himself behind whatever framework emerges on Capitol Hill.

If lawmakers unite behind comprehensive changes, Obama can claim credit for the new blueprint. If Congress simply reauthorizes the Patriot Act, as hawkish Republicans, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, prefer, he would maintain broad, executive surveillance powers — and could blame Republicans when progressives raise objections.

With national security increasingly on voters' minds following steady gains by the Islamic State, the White House has extra incentive for appearing tough on combating terrorism.

The likelihood is that any final agreement will fall somewhere between a dramatic revamp of how the intelligence community operates and maintaining the status quo.

"The only thing we can agree on right now is that Congress has no idea yet what it wants do," said a former senior Obama administration official who worked extensively on national security issues. "Without any clarity, it doesn't make much sense for the president to make a major push. He made his views known. He said Congress needs to play a part in this. He's still waiting on them."

Given how frequently Obama has gone around Congress in his second term — on immigration, climate change and talks with Iran and Cuba — progressives say that reasoning is more about political convenience than a sudden willingness to work with Capitol Hill.

They argue that as commander in chief, Obama could shut down the most controversial surveillance initiatives on his own.

"My hope is that the president would make it clear that if this legislation doesn't pass, he's not going to re-up the collection of data – he does have the administrative authority to do that," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the Washington Examiner.

Some analysts said Obama is simply waiting until the last possible moment to reveal his intentions, especially since a string of recent deals between lawmakers have been finalized thanks largely to the lack of White House involvement.

"They may have made a calculation that Congress has to work out its own internal conflicts over the issue," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, "before a useful dialogue with the executive branch can be achieved."