President Barack Obama defended his administration’s “transparent” spying efforts, including the National Security Agency’s formerly secret and massive surveillance programs, during an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose.
When pressed on the issue of domestic surveillance, Obama was adamant that Americans’ phone calls and emails can’t be targeted without getting approval from the secret FISA court.
“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,” Obama said, according to a transcript obtained by BuzzFeed.
Pelley appears to press Obama on the issue, according to the transcript of the interview scheduled to air on Monday evening:
Charlie Rose: So I hear you saying, I have no problem with what NSA has been doing.
Barack Obama: Well, let me — let me finish, because I don’t. So, what happens is that the FBI — if, in fact, it now wants to get content; if, in fact, it wants to start tapping that phone — it’s got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant.
Charlie Rose: But has FISA court turned down any request?
Barack Obama: The — because — the — first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.
Charlie Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?
Barack Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…. The whole point of my concern, before I was president — because 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.” 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? So, on this telephone program, 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.
Obama also dismissed claims that the government’s spying programs are ripe for abuse. From the transcript:
Now, one last point I want to make, because what you’ll hear is people say, “Okay, we have no evidence that it has been abused so far.” And they say, “Let’s even grant that Obama’s not abusing it, that all these processes — DOJ is examining it. It’s being renewed periodically, et cetera — the very fact that there is all this data in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse,” because they’ll say, you know, “You can — when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up, if there’s a call to an oncologist, and there’s a call to a lawyer, and — you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person’s dying, and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information.” All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.
The president said he will be meeting with a “privacy and civil liberties oversight board” to “set up and structure a national conversation” about the government’s spying programs and the issues relating to big data collection.
Obama wouldn’t say whether NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden caused national security damage by leaking classified information on the NSA’s spying programs, saying “I’m not going to comment on prosecution.”
Featured image via AP