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June 18, 2013

NSA Surveillance Simply a ‘Trade Off’ in the Name of Safety: Obama

U.S. President Addresses Privacy Concerns in Exclusive PBS Interview

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs are no different than security checks at airports, says U.S. President Barack Obama — yes, they are a bit intrusive, but necessary to keep Americans safe.

“Well, in the end, and what I’ve said, and I continue to believe, is that we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security,” Obama told Charlie Rose during a 45-minute interview aired on PBS Monday night.  “That’s a false choice. That doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, in any given action that we take.”

Obama, in his exclusive interview from the White House with Rose, a well known broadcast journalist, lauded the NSA for its dedication to keep “the American people safe,” adding that the agency is “bigger and better than everybody else, and we should take pride in that because they’re extraordinary professionals.”

The Obama administration and the NSA both have been under fire for the past two weeks after reports of two massive spying programs came to light courtesy of whistleblower and former NSA contract worker Edward Snowden. Snowden, who collected classified material to hand over to U.K. newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post, is the subject of an investigation by the Department of Justice and is currently in hiding.

Snowden’s documents revealed the 2015 Program collects data from wireless carriers such as Verizon while PRISM forces via court order or National Security Letter, Internet companies such as Google and Facebook to hand over subscriber data.

According to documentation — a slide presentation — Snowden gave The Post, the monitoring campaign, dubbed PRISM, costs $20 million a year to run.

Obama said these classified programs are kept on the straight and narrow both by Congress and by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC).

“Despite all that, the public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right? Because they say, ‘Well, Obama says it’s OK — or Congress says it’s OK. I don’t know who this judge is. I’m nervous about it.’ What I’ve asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, number one. And they are in that process of doing so now so that everything that I’m describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers, etc., can look at because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story.”

PRISM, which Obama referred to as the 702 program, “does not apply to any U.S. person,” he said.

“It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber-hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers — phone numbers, e-mails, et cetera. Those — and the process has all been approved by the courts — you can send to providers — the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you. And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to U.S. persons. And it’s only in these very narrow bands.”

Obama said the NSA cannot listen in on American’s calls or read their e-mails without securing a warrant.

“If you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your e-mails unless it’s getting an individualized court order. That’s the existing rule,” the president said.

In explaining NSA’s collection of wireless carrier subscriber data, Obama said the agency simply receives a list of calls made.

“There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place.”

If the NSA then receives a tip about possible terrorist activity, the agency can check the database of phone calls to see if phone numbers related to those under suspicion have popped up.

From there, Obama said, that information is handed over to the FBI and it must then obtain a warrant to tap the phones in question.

When asked by Rose if the surveillance programs should be more transparent, Obama said the system already is transparent.

“That’s why we set up the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) 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?”

Obama said he is putting together a “a privacy and civil liberties oversight board” which will be comprised of independent citizens, “including some fierce civil libertarians.”

“I’ll be meeting with them,” he said. “And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.”

Obama’s popularity has taken a significant hit since the NSA scandal erupted. According to a poll from CNN, the president’s approval rating has dipped by eight percent over the past month to 45 percent — his lowest rating in more than a year-and-a-half.

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