Denis McDonough: Obama does not feel Americans’ privacy has been violated

June 16, 2013

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defended the Obama administration's sweeping surveillance efforts Sunday, saying President Obama does not believe the tactics have violated the privacy of any American, as he signaled the president will be elaborating on the issue in the coming days.

"Well, I think you'll hear the president talk about this in the days ahead," McDonough said on CBS's "Face The Nation." He later added: "You'll hear what he said when he responded to reporters last week on this question, which is we do have to find the right balance, especially in this new situation where we find ourselves with all of us reliant on Internet, on e-mail, on texting."

"Does the president feel that he has violated the privacy of any American?" asked CBS's Bob Schieffer.

"He does not," responded McDonough.

McDonough also responded to The Washington Post's report about the origins of the legal structures that allowed Presidents Bush and Obama to expand the reach of the government's surveillance efforts.

"I saw the Bart Gellman story, and he's obviously worked on this over the course of the last couple of weeks pretty aggressively," McDonough said. "I will say that much of what he was reporting on was a draft inspector general report about a program that was suspended now several years ago because of the way we saw its usefulness."

McDonough added that upon taking office, Obama's skepticism about surveillance programs led to key changes, including looping in Congress to a greater extent.

"When President Obama came into office in 2009, after being elected in 2008, he was pretty skeptical about the importance of these programs, so he took a very hard look at them," said the White House chief of staff. "And as a result, we changed many things about how we oversee those programs."

While McDonough declined to go into details about the investigation involving Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who publicly acknowledged disclosing details of the agency's sweeping surveillance techniques, he said he did not know where Snowden is currently located.

"I'm sure you'll understand when I tell you I don't want to get involved in any ongoing investigation or any kind of effort that's being undertaken. But I can tell you that I don't know where he is right now," said McDonough.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said he doubted that a sweeping NSA telephone surveillance effort made the country safer.

"I don't think collecting millions and millions of Americans' phone calls, now this is the metadata, this is time, place, to whom you direct the calls, is making us any safer," Udall said NBC's "Meet The Press." "And I think it's ultimately perhaps a violation of the Fourth Amendment."

Meanwhile, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said that once Americans learn more about the extent to which the NSA's sweeping surveillance methods helped thwart terror plots, they will warm up to the efforts.

“If you can see just the number of cases where we’ve actually stopped a plot, I think Americans will come to a different conclusion than all the misleading rhetoric I’ve heard over the the last few weeks,” Rogers said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Rogers said he expected that examples would be provided “hopefully early this next week” and that he is hopeful the disclosures will be as accurate as possible without giving up details terrorists could use to their advantage.

NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said last week the agency’s surveillance programs helped thwart “dozens” of terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad. He vowed to quickly make public records that show the success of the recently revealed telephone record program.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. 

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · June 16, 2013