The Washington Post

Obama says administration making ‘right trade-offs’ in surveillance programs


President Obama speaks at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Monday. (Paul Faith/AP)

President Obama defended his administration’s right to engage in extensive surveillance of U.S. communications in an interview with PBS host Charlie Rose, saying the programs had disrupted multiple terrorist plots and had adequate checks and balances.

During the interview — which was conducted Sunday before Obama left for Europe and was set to air Monday night — the president took pains to distinguish his national security approach from those of former president George W. Bush and former vice president Richard B. Cheney.

“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,’ ” Obama said, according to a transcript provided by PBS. “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?”

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Obama argued, provided sufficient oversight of the National Security Agency’s activities and said the government was “making the right trade-offs” in balancing privacy rights with national security prerogatives.

“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 e-mails,” he added, before Rose interjected, “And have not.”

“And have not,” Obama reiterated. “They cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they — and usually it wouldn’t be ‘they,’ it’d be the FBI — go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it’s always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause.”

The number of requests for wiretapping orders from the FISA court, Obama said, is “surprisingly small.”

Details about the NSA programs, disclosed to The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper by former government contractor Edward Snowden, has set off a furious debate in Washington about Obama’s civil liberties record.

The president said in the PBS interview that the trade-off in privacy rights was worth it because the programs “have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well.”

Referring to foiled terrorist Najibullah Zazi, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to trying to detonate explosives in the New York subway system, Obama said, “Now, we might have caught him some other way. 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.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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