President Obama gave an interview on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno on Tuesday night. Despite the casual format, he discussed a number of foreign policy and national security issues, including the new tension in the already difficult U.S.-Russia relationship over NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Moscow.
Obama said that Russian President Vladimir Putin can "slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality;" he also criticized Russia's controversial new law banning "gay propaganda." He dodged a question on whether he would meet with Putin at the upcoming G20 summit.
On the NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden, Obama insisted, "We don't have a domestic spying program" and expressed his desire to see Snowden face trial "with a lawyer and due process." In one offbeat moment, Leno referred to Snowden, as well as Blackwater, as "Hessians," the German mercenaries hired by the British army during the American Revolutionary War.
Here are a few transcript highlights, with video in some cases, on issues that readers of this blog might care about:
On the global embassy closings in response to terrorism threats
LENO: I've got to ask you about this. Everyone is concerned about these embassy closings. How significant is this threat?
OBAMA: Well, it's significant enough that we're taking every precaution. We had already done a lot to bolster embassy security around the world, but especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where the threats tend to be highest. And whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain timeframe, then we do so.
Now, it's a reminder that for all the progress we've made — getting bin Laden, putting al-Qaeda between Afghanistan and Pakistan back on its heels — that this radical, violent extremism is still out there. And we've got to stay on top of it. It's also a reminder of how courageous our embassy personnel tend to be, because you can never have 100 percent security in some of these places. The countries themselves sometimes are ill-equipped to provide the kind of security that you want. Even if we reinforce it, there are still vulnerabilities.
And these diplomats, they go out there and they serve every day. Oftentimes, they have their families with them. They do an incredible job and sometimes don't get enough credit. So we're grateful to them and we've got to do everything we can to protect them.
On not overreacting to terrorism
LENO: What do you say to those cynics who go, oh, this [set of embassy closures] is an overreaction to [the 2011 terror attack in] Benghazi — how do you respond to that?
OBAMA: One thing I've tried to do as president is not over react, but make sure that as much as possible the American people understand that there are genuine risks out there. What's great about what we've seen with America over the last several years is how resilient we are. So after the Boston bombing, for example, the next day folks were out there, they're going to ball games. They are making sure that we're not reacting in a way that somehow shuts us down.
And that's the right reaction. Terrorists depend on the idea that we're going to be terrorized. And we're going to live our lives. And the odds of people dying in a terrorist attack obviously are still a lot lower than in a car accident, unfortunately. But there are things that we can do to make sure that we're keeping the pressure on these networks that would try to injure Americans. And the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed is making sure that I'm doing everything I can to keep Americans safe.
On whether Snowden is a "whistleblower"
LENO: Let me ask you about this — the NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Some call him a whistleblower. What do you call him?
OBAMA: Well, we don’t know yet exactly what he did, other than what he’s said on the Internet, and it’s important for me not to prejudge something.
LENO: Got you.
OBAMA: Hopefully, at some point he’ll go to trial and he will have a lawyer and due process, and we can make those decisions.
I can tell you that there are ways, if you think that the government is abusing a program, of coming forward. In fact, I, through executive order, signed whistleblower protection for intelligence officers or people who are involved in the intelligence industry. So you don’t have to break the law. You don’t have to divulge information that could compromise American security. You can come forward, come to the appropriate individuals and say, look, I’ve got a problem with what’s going on here, I’m not sure whether it’s being done properly.
If, in fact, the allegations are true, then he didn’t do that. And that is a huge problem because a lot of what we do depends on terrorists' networks not knowing that, in fact, we may be able to access their information.
On working with Putin, who can "slip back into Cold War thinking"
LENO: Now, were you surprised that Russia granted Snowden asylum?
OBAMA: I was disappointed because even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a law-breaker or an alleged law-breaker in their country, we evaluate it and we try to work with them. They didn’t do that with us. And in some ways it’s reflective of some underlying challenges that we’ve had with Russia lately. A lot of what’s been going on hasn’t been major breaks in the relationship, and they still help us on supplying our troops in Afghanistan; they’re still helping us on counterterrorism work; they were helpful after the Boston bombing in that investigation. And so there’s still a lot of business that we can do with them.
But there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.
LENO: And Putin seems to me like one of those old-school KGB guys.
OBAMA: Well, he headed up the KGB. (Laughter.)
LENO: Yes. Well, that’s what I mean. Yes, that’s what I mean. He has that mentality. I mean, look at this picture here. You two don’t look pretty — (laughter) — you look like me and the NBC executives. What is going on there? (Laughter.) That doesn’t look like a friendly picture.
OBAMA: Well, the truth is, is that when we have meetings we can have some pretty blunt exchanges and animated exchanges. But he’s got — that seems to be his preferred style during press conferences, is sitting back and not looking too excited. (Laughter.) Now, part of it is he’s not accustomed to having press conferences where you’ve got a bunch of reporters yelling questions at you.
LENO: Now, the G-20 summit is in St. Petersburg next —
OBAMA: Coming up, right.
LENO: Are you going to that and will you meet with Putin?
OBAMA: I will be going to that. I will be going to that because the G-20 summit is the main forum where we talk about the economy, the world economy, with all the top economic powers in the world. So it’s not something unique to Russia. They’re hosting it this year, but it’s important for us, as the leading economy in the world, to make sure that we’re there — in part because creating jobs, improving our economy, building up our manufacturing base, increasing wages — all those things now depend on how we compete in this global economy. And when you’ve got problems in Europe, or China is slowing down, that has an impact here in the United States.
And I’ve been saying for the entire tenure of my presidency that my number-one priority at all times is how do we create an economy where, if you work hard in this country, you can succeed. And there are a lot of things that we can do here in this country, but we’ve also got to pay attention to what’s going on outside it.
Criticizing Russia's ban against "gay propaganda"
LENO: Well, something that shocked me about Russia — and I’m surprised this is not a huge story — suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: Let’s round up the Jews, let’s round up the gays, let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that. You round up people who you don’t — I mean, why is not more of the world outraged at this?
OBAMA: Well, I’ve been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country. And I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.
Now, what’s happening in Russia is not unique. When I traveled to Africa, there were some countries that are doing a lot of good things for their people, who we’re working with and helping on development issues, but in some cases have persecuted gays and lesbians. And it makes for some uncomfortable press conferences sometimes. But one of the things that I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly, because that’s what we stand for. And I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America, that’s something that should apply everywhere. (Applause.)
LENO: Do you think it will affect the Olympics?
OBAMA: I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently. They’re athletes, they’re there to compete. And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.
"We don't have a domestic spying program"
LENO: It's safe to say that we learned about these threats through the NSA intelligence program? Is that a fair assessment?
OBAMA: Well, this intelligence-gathering that we do is a critical component of counterterrorism. And obviously, with Mr. Snowden and the disclosures of classified information, this raised a lot of questions for people. But what I said as soon as it happened I continue to believe in, which is a lot of these programs were put in place before I came in. I had some skepticism, and I think we should have a healthy skepticism about what government is doing. I had the programs reviewed. We put in some additional safeguards to make sure that there's federal court oversight as well as congressional oversight, that there is no spying on Americans.
We don't have a domestic spying program. What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an e-mail address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. And that information is useful. But what I've said before I want to make sure I repeat, and that is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy. None of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers.
And I've been talking to Congress and civil libertarians and others about are there additional ways that we can make sure that people know nobody is listening to your phone call, but we do want to make sure that after a Boston bombing, for example, we've got the phone numbers of those two brothers — we want to be able to make sure did they call anybody else? Are there networks in New York, are there networks elsewhere that we have to roll up? And if we can make sure that there's confidence on the part of the American people that there's oversight, then I think we can make sure that we're properly balancing our liberty and our security.
On the U.S. intelligence community's heavy use of contractors
LENO: Let me add — now, [Snowden] was a contracted employee.
LENO: And it seems the government has a lot of these. I remember when I was coming up, my brother was in ROTC, and in those days, they would take college students, you go into the Army, the Army would train you. This guy is being paid money by an outside firm, living in Hawaii, got the stripper girlfriend. All of a sudden you’re all upset with what the government is doing, and you go to another country. I mean, in my era, Daniel Ellsberg stood in the town square and said, “I’ve got this,” got arrested, The New York Times — I mean, should we go back to not using so many — whether it’s Blackwater or any of these contract — these people who are Hessians, they get paid?
OBAMA: Well, I think you’re raising an important issue. We’ve been trying to reduce the reliance on contractors. Some of the contractors do a great job, and they’re patriots and they’re trying to support our mission. Sometimes they can do it more efficiently or effectively if they’ve got some specialized knowledge. But one of the things that I’ve asked our team to look at is, when it comes to intelligence, should we, in fact, be farming that much stuff out. And there are a lot of extraordinarily capable folks in our military and our government who can do this, and probably do it cheaper, and then benefit from the training that they get so that when they transfer — (applause) — they’re in a better position.
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