President Barack Obama defended the ability of the federal government to carry out some intelligence-gathering operations in secret in a wide-ranging interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose that aired Monday.
Obama suggested that Americans have to accept some level of “covert activity” from the federal government.
“We could not have carried out the [Osama] bin Laden raid if it was carried out on the front page of the papers,” Obama said, bluntly.
Obama went to great lengths to defend the NSA programs, which have been detailed in a series of leaks of classified information from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Obama said they were legal, had proper oversight, and were necessary to protect Americans from overseas terror threats.
Rose challenged Obama whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court provides an effective check on executive power in overseeing the programs, pointing out that it has denied only a few of the government’s requests for warrants. But Obama pushed back, insisting that the process is balanced and sufficiently transparent.
“Because first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small, No. 1,” Obama said. “And No. 2, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.”
“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? So, on this telephone program, you’ve got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you’ve got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works.”
Obama said that he has instructed the intelligence community to determine how much more of the programs can be declassified without compromising the program. He said he also has set up a “privacy and civil liberties” oversight board — “including some fierce civil libertarians” — and that he will meet with them about the programs.
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