President Defends Surveillance Program

Wide-Ranging Interview with Charlie Rose

Photo: Charlie Rose LLC
Paul Brandus

President Obama says the federal government's intelligence-gathering efforts are both legal and necessary, and that Americans must accept some level of secrey from their government.

In a wide-ranging interview with PBS' Charlie Rose, Mr. Obama pointed out that "We could not have carried out the [Osama] bin Laden raid if it was carried out on the front page of the papers." 

The President defended surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency, pointing out they are legal, have Congressional and judicial oversight, and are necessary to protect Americans from overseas terror threats. Much of the NSA's surveillance programs have been exposed in a series of leaks by a former contractor, Edward Snowden.

Obama noted that he has been criticized by both left and right - a source of amusement to him.  

“I think it’s fair to say that there’re going to be folks on the left [criticizing me]. And what amuses me is now folks on the right who are fine when there’s a Republican president, but now, Obama’s coming in with the black helicopters.”

Rose challenged Obama on the matter of FISA - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act - which provides, through an independent court, a check on executive power in overseeing the programs. Rose noted that the FISA court denies few requests for warrants, but Obama pushed back, insisting that the process is balanced and sufficiently transparent.


"The number of requests are surprisingly small, No. 1," Obama answered. "And No. 2, folks don't go with a query unless they've got a pretty good suspicion."

He added:

"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 — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works."

The President added that he has ordered intelligence officials to determine how much more of the surveillance programs can be declassified without being compromised; he has also set up a "privacy and civil liberties" oversight board — "including some fierce civil libertarians" — that will meet with him on a regular basis to discuss the programs. 

Other subjects from the Rose interview: 

On his recent conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping about alleged cyberattacks by China:

“We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity. … You know, when you’re having a conversation like this, I don’t think you ever expect a Chinese leader to say, you know what, ‘You’re right. You’ve caught us red-handed.’”

On Syria and arming anti-Assad rebels: 

…This argument that somehow we had gone in earlier or heavier in some fashion, that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong. … The fact of the matter is, the way these situations get resolved is politically. And the people who are being suppressed inside of Syria who develop into a military opposition — these folks are carpenters and blacksmiths and dentists. These aren’t professional fighters. The notion that there was some professional military inside of Syria for us to immediately support a year ago or two years ago [is wrong].”

Obama pointed out "One of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly [friendly] towards the United States of America, and arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.”

The President blamed Russia and Iran for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying their support is a form of validationfor Assad, who "because of his support from Iran and from Russia — believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition, believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population. And as long as he’s got that mind-set, it’s going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.”

On Iran's President-elect Hassan Rouhani, and whether Obama would insist on preconditions for talks: 

“I do think that there’s a possibility that they decide — the Iranians decide to take us up on our offer to engage in a more serious substantive way. … I think that my general view is, we are open to discussions — both through the P5+1 and through potential bilateral channels — and we recognize that you’re not going to solve problems all upfront, as a precondition for talks.”


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