WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama defended top secret National Security Agency spying programs as legal in a lengthy interview broadcast Monday, and called them transparent – even though they are authorized in secret.
“It is transparent,” Obama told PBS’ Charlie Rose. “That’s why we set up the FISA court,” he added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.
He added that he’s named members of a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to help in the debate on just how far government data gathering should be allowed to go – a discussion that is complicated by the secrecy surrounding the FISA court, with hearings held at undisclosed locations and with only government lawyers present. The orders that result are all highly classified.
“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place … that their phone calls aren’t being listened into, their text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere,” Obama said.
A senior administration official said the president had asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to determine what more information about the two programs could be made public, to help better explain them. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama is in Northern Ireland for a meeting of leaders of allied countries. As Obama arrived, the latest series of Guardian articles drawing on the leaks claims that British eavesdropping agency GCHQ repeatedly hacked into foreign diplomats’ phones and emails with U.S. help, in an effort to get an edge in such high-stakes negotiations.
Obama’s announcement follows an online chat Monday by Edward Snowden, the man who leaked documents revealing the scope of the two programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers. He accused members of Congress and administration officials of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009.
Snowden said Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs — a point Obama conceded in his Monday interview without mentioning Snowden.
“We might have caught him some other way,” Obama said. “We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn’t go off. But, at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs,” he said.
Obama repeated earlier assertions that the programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely noninvasive to people with no terror ties – something he hoped to discuss with the privacy and civil liberties board he’d created. The senior administration official said the president would be meeting with the new privacy board in the coming days.
“I’ll be meeting with them. 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,” he said.
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