Obama Speaks on NSA Spying: ‘It Is Transparent’

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NSA, is that you? Photo: The White House/2012 The White House

In his first public comments on Edward Snowden's NSA leaks, President Obama tells Charlie Rose, "The way I view it, my job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy." The interview, scheduled to air tonight on PBS, features the president calling the need to sacrifice freedom for security "a false choice" and insisting "unequivocally ... that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails … and have not."

"So point number one, if you're a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your emails unless it's getting an individualized court order. That's the existing rule," Obama claims.

That's in opposition to Snowden's statement earlier today that, "Americans' communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis on the certification of an analyst rather than a warrant. They excuse this as 'incidental' collection, but at the end of the day, someone at NSA still has the content of your communications. Even in the event of 'warranted' intercept, it's important to understand the intelligence community doesn't always deal with what you would consider a 'real' warrant like a Police department would have to, the 'warrant' is more of a templated form they fill out and send to a reliable judge with a rubber stamp."

For the FBI or NSA to access the metadata collected from service providers, Obama explains, "it's got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant." From an early transcript via Buzzfeed:

Now, one last point I want to make, because what you’ll hear is people say, “Okay, we have no evidence that it has been abused so far.” And they say, “Let’s even grant that Obama’s not abusing it, that all these processes — DOJ is examining it. It’s being renewed periodically, et cetera — the very fact that there is all this data in bulk, it has the enormous potential for abuse,” because they’ll say, you know, “You can — when you start looking at metadata, even if you don’t know the names, you can match it up, if there’s a call to an oncologist, and there’s a call to a lawyer, and — you can pair that up and figure out maybe this person’s dying, and they’re writing their will, and you can yield all this information.” All of that is true. Except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that.

"It is transparent," Obama says, citing the system of "checks and balance," in which independent judges and Congress oversee the authorization.

While he refuses to comment on the investigation into Snowden's leaks, Obama lays out a vague plan for moving forward: "What I've asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, number one," he says. "Number two: I've stood up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, made up of independent citizens including some fierce civil libertarians. 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."

That national conversation is already happening: Although it's impossible to say exactly why, Obama's approval rating is way down over the last month, including a huge drop among supporters under 30.