President Obama said the U.S. government is not spying on American citizens during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
"There is no spying on Americans, we don't have a domestic spying program," Obama told Leno. "What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat." But what does he mean exactly?
The president's argument seems to hinge on a technicality: That the law granting the government surveillance powers does not allow U.S. agencies to "target" purely domestic communications. In practice however, as we've learned from the secret court order leaked by Edward Snowden, Americans' communications data is being gathered in bulk by the National Security Agency. The law also allows warrantless surveillance of communications where one party is in the United States if another is assumed to be outside the country.
Intelligence officials say that it's technically not spying when they gather the data, only when they query it, a process they claim has safeguards to ensure that it is not abused. James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, got tripped up when Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked him if the NSA collected data on Americans. Clapper said "no," and then later admitted to having been "cute" with his answer.
Obama was being similarly "cute" with Leno, who quite obviously is not as well versed in the ins and outs of the NSA as Wyden, who sits on the intelligence committee. Saying "we don't have a domestic spying program" isn't the same as saying the NSA isn't gathering volumes of data about American citizens who aren't suspected of any links to terrorism.
Obama also weighed in on Snowden, saying that "It's important for me not to prejudge somebody, hopefully at some point he will go to trial, and he will have a lawyer and due process and we can make those decisions. I can tell you that there are ways if you think that the government is abusing a program, of coming forward." Other former NSA officials (some of whom have been critical of Snowden) who tried to make information public through official whistleblowing channels have said that those channels are ineffective and can actually backfire on the person trying to do the right thing.
Later Obama told Leno that "we should be skeptical about potential encroachments on privacy, none of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers." If information about the NSA hadn't leaked, however, Americans wouldn't know to be skeptical.
Many members of Congress, however, appear to have come around to the argument that even if the government's surveillance powers may not have been abused, the power itself is an abuse.