President Obama responded to questions over his administration’s use of domestic surveillance programs during an interview that aired Monday night, and he rejected comparisons to the George W. Bush administration.
“Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney.’ Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock, and barrel,’” Obama told PBS’ Charlie Rose. “My concern has always been not that we shouldn’t do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?”
Earlier in the day, self-identified NSA leaker Edward Snowden accused of Obama maintaining the same anti-terror policies that defined the post 9/11 Bush years.
“Obama’s campaign promises and election gave me faith that he would lead us toward fixing the problems he outlined in his quest for votes. Many Americans felt similarly,” Snowden said in an online chat with The Guardian on Monday. “Unfortunately, shortly after assuming power, he closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge.”
The world at large first learned of Snowden last week after he revealed classified information on National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. The 29-year-old former defense contractor said he released the docs to alert Americans to what he called the government’s intent to “destroy privacy.”
The president argued that oversight through the federal court system and Congress safeguards Americans against any abuses of privacy, even referring to the National Security Agency programs as “transparent.”
“You’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program, and you’ve got Congress overseeing the program—not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee,” he said.
Obama continued, “there has been a lot of misinformation out there.” He acknowledged the public’s uneasiness over the secret collection of phone and Internet data, yet maintained that some information must stay classified. “Even though we have all these systems of checks and balances, Congress is overseeing it, federal courts are overseeing it–despite all that, the public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right?”
But he said, “What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not. They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they–and usually it wouldn’t be ‘they,’ it’d be the FBI–go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies: you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause.”
Still in order to address “legitimate concerns” over the use of private citizens’ information, the president said he “asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program.” He also announced plans to meet with citizens—“including some fierce civil libertarians”—to talk about the two programs under fire and to discuss “the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”
Obama refused to comment on whether Snowden should be prosecuted, saying only he will “leave it up to [the Justice Department] to answer those questions” on possible charges and extradition.
Cheney, however, was more blunt in his assessment of Snowden. During an appearance Sunday on Fox news, Cheney labeled Snowden a “traitor” for trying to bring down the program the vice president helped create.
In the PBS interview, Obama took the opportunity to comment on the recent election in Iran. “If you contrast this with the violence and suppression that happened in the last presidential election, obviously you have a much more positive atmosphere this time,” he said. “The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything any time anywhere. Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.”
The president also discussed his recent decision to help arm the Syrian rebels. He said America’s goal was to help the opposition “become more cohesive. We’ve been assisting not only the political opposition but also the military opposition.”
But the president said it’s clear that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad “believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition,” partly because of his support from Iran and Russia. However, Obama promised caution. “We know what it’s like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through,” he said.