Obama On NSA 9 August 2013
A sends video link: http://www.c-span.org/flvPop.aspx?id=10737440808
Two related NSA and DoJ reports released 9 August 2013:
2013-0979.pdf DoJ: NSA Bulk Collection of Telephone Metadata August 9, 2013 2013-0978.pdf NSA: Missions, Authorities, Oversight, Partners August 9, 2013
[Excerpts pertaining to NSA.]
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
August 09, 2013
Remarks by the President in a Press Conference
3:09 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking about what I believe should be our number-one priority as a country -- building a better bargain for the middle class and for Americans who want to work their way into the middle class. At the same time, I’m focused on my number-one responsibility as Commander-in-Chief, and that's keeping the American people safe. And in recent days, we’ve been reminded once again about the threats to our nation.
As I said at the National Defense University back in May, in meeting those threats we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms. And as part of this rebalancing, I called for a review of our surveillance programs. Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate, but not always fully informed way.
Now, keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these programs, and as President, I’ve taken steps to make sure they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But given the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance -- particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.
I’m also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas, because American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness -- because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it -- with open debate and democratic process.
In other words, it’s not enough for me, as President, to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as well. And that's why, over the last few weeks, I’ve consulted members of Congress who come at this issue from many different perspectives. I’ve asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension, and I directed my national security team to be more transparent and to pursue reforms of our laws and practices.
And so, today, I’d like to discuss four specific steps -- not all inclusive, but some specific steps that we’re going to be taking very shortly to move the debate forward.
First, I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- the program that collects telephone records. As I’ve said, this program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt terrorist plots. And it does not allow the government to listen to any phone calls without a warrant. But given the scale of this program, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse. So after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.
For instance, we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority. So I look forward to working with Congress to meet those objectives.
Second, I’ll work with Congress to improve the public’s confidence in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, known as the FISC. The FISC was created by Congress to provide judicial review of certain intelligence activities so that a federal judge must find that our actions are consistent with the Constitution. However, to build greater confidence, I think we should consider some additional changes to the FISC.
One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side of the story -- may tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough attention to liberty. And while I’ve got confidence in the court and I think they’ve done a fine job, I think we can provide greater assurances that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives -- security and privacy.
So, specifically, we can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns have an independent voice in appropriate cases by ensuring that the government’s position is challenged by an adversary.
Number three, we can, and must, be more transparent. So I’ve directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible. We’ve already declassified unprecedented information about the NSA, but we can go further. So at my direction, the Department of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the government’s collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The NSA is taking steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and released information that details its mission, authorities, and oversight. And finally, the intelligence community is creating a website that will serve as a hub for further transparency, and this will give Americans and the world the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and what it doesn’t do, how it carries out its mission, and why it does so.
Fourth, we’re forming a high-level group of outside experts to review our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking for a new era. We now have to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle in the haystack of global telecommunications. And meanwhile, technology has given governments -- including our own -- unprecedented capability to monitor communications.
So I am tasking this independent group to step back and review our capabilities -- particularly our surveillance technologies. And they’ll consider how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy -- particularly in an age when more and more information is becoming public. And they will provide an interim report in 60 days and a final report by the end of this year, so that we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.
So all these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values. And to others around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused, above all, on finding the information that’s necessary to protect our people, and -- in many cases -- protect our allies.
It’s true we have significant capabilities. What’s also true is we show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think to do, refuse to show -- and that includes, by the way, some of America’s most vocal critics. We shouldn’t forget the difference between the ability of our government to collect information online under strict guidelines and for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw their own citizens in prison for what they say online.
And let me close with one additional thought. The men and women of our intelligence community work every single day to keep us safe because they love this country and believe in our values. They're patriots. And I believe that those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live up to our highest ideals. So this is how we’re going to resolve our differences in the United States -- through vigorous public debate, guided by our Constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws, and with respect for the facts.
So, with that, I’m going to take some questions. And let’s see who we’ve got here. We’re going to start with Julie Pace of AP.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask about some of the foreign policy fallout from the disclosure of the NSA programs that you discussed. Your spokesman said yesterday that there’s no question that the U.S. relationship with Russia has gotten worse since Vladimir Putin took office. How much of that decline do you attribute directly to Mr. Putin, given that you seem to have had a good working relationship with his predecessor? Also will there be any additional punitive measures taken against Russia for granting asylum to Edward Snowden? Or is canceling the September summit really all you can do given the host of issues the U.S. needs Russian cooperation for? Thank you.
THE PRESIDENT: Good. I think there’s always been some tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union. There’s been cooperation in some areas; there’s been competition in others.
It is true that in my first four years, in working with President Medvedev, we made a lot of progress. We got START done -- or START II done. We were able to cooperate together on Iran sanctions. They provided us help in terms of supplying our troops in Afghanistan. We were able to get Russia into the WTO -- which is not just good for Russia, it’s good for our companies and businesses because they're more likely then to follow international norms and rules. So there's been a lot of good work that has been done and that is going to continue to be done. What's also true is, is that when President Putin -- who was prime minister when Medvedev was president -- came back into power I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contests between the United States and Russia. And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues -- with mixed success.
And I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we're doing things that are good for the United States and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that there just are going to be some differences and we're not going to be able to completely disguise them.
And that's okay. Keep in mind that although I'm not attending the summit, I'll still be going to St. Petersburg because Russia is hosting the G20. That's important business in terms of our economy and our jobs and all the issues that are of concern to Americans.
I know that one question that's been raised is how do we approach the Olympics. I want to just make very clear right now I do not think it's appropriate to boycott the Olympics. We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed. Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia. But as I said just this week, I've spoken out against that not just with respect to Russia but a number of other countries where we continue to do work with them, but we have a strong disagreement on this issue.
And one of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then it probably makes their team weaker.
Q Are there going to be any additional punitive measures for Russia, beyond canceling the summit?
THE PRESIDENT: Keep in mind that our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden. It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved. And so we don't consider that strictly punitive.
We're going to assess where the relationship can advance U.S. interests and increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world. Where it can, we’re going to keep on working with them. Where we have differences, we’re going to say so clearly. And my hope is, is that over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Given that you just announced a whole bunch of reforms based on essentially the leaks that Edward Snowden made on all of these surveillance programs, is that change -- is your mindset changed about him? Is he now more a whistle-blower than he is a hacker, as you called him at one point, or somebody that shouldn’t be filed charges? And should he be provided more protection? Is he a patriot? You just used those words. And then just to follow up on the personal -- I want to follow up on a personal --
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, I want to make sure -- everybody is asking one question it would be helpful.
Q No, I understand. It was a part of a question that you didn’t answer. Can you get stuff done with Russia, big stuff done, without having a good personal relationship with Putin?
THE PRESIDENT: I don’t have a bad personal relationship with Putin. When we have conversations, they’re candid, they’re blunt; oftentimes, they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.
So the issue here really has to do with where do they want to take Russia -- it’s substantive on a policy front. And --
THE PRESIDENT: No. Right now, this is just a matter of where Mr. Putin and the Russian people want to go. I think if they are looking forward into the 21st century and how they can advance their economy, and make sure that some of our joint concerns around counterterrorism are managed effectively, then I think we can work together. If issues are framed as if the U.S. is for it then Russia should be against it, or we’re going to be finding ways where we can poke each other at every opportunity, then probably we don’t get as much stuff done.
See, now I’ve forgotten your first question, which presumably was the more important one. No, I don’t think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. As I said in my opening remarks, I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks.
My preference -- and I think the American people’s preference -- would have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws, a thoughtful fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place. Because I never made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn't require potentially some additional reforms. That's exactly what I called for.
So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies. If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case. If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to the intelligence community -- for the first time. So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.
But having said that, once the leaks have happened, what we’ve seen is information come out in dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways. Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct the record. But by that time, it’s too late or we’ve moved on, and a general impression has, I think, taken hold not only among the American public but also around the world that somehow we’re out there willy-nilly just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it.
That's not the case. Our laws specifically prohibit us from surveilling U.S. persons without a warrant. And there are a whole range of safeguards that have been put in place to make sure that that basic principle is abided by.
But what is clear is that whether, because of the instinctive bias of the intelligence community to keep everything very close -- and probably what’s a fair criticism is my assumption that if we had checks and balances from the courts and Congress, that that traditional system of checks and balances would be enough to give people assurance that these programs were run probably -- that assumption I think proved to be undermined by what happened after the leaks. I think people have questions about this program.
And so, as a consequence, I think it is important for us to go ahead and answer these questions. What I’m going to be pushing the IC to do is rather than have a trunk come out here and leg come out there and a tail come out there, let’s just put the whole elephant out there so people know exactly what they're looking at. Let’s examine what is working, what’s not, are there additional protections that can be put in place, and let’s move forward.
And there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through, and I had sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through. It would have been less exciting. It would not have generated as much press. I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.
[Q&A on Federal Reserve chairman omitted.]
Q Thank you, Mr. President.
I wanted to ask you about your evolution on the surveillance issues. I mean, part of what you’re talking about today is restoring the public trust. And the public has seen you evolve from when you were in the U.S. Senate to now. And even as recently as June, you said that the process was such that people should be comfortable with it, and now you’re saying you’re making these reforms and people should be comfortable with those. So why should the public trust you on this issue, and why did you change your position multiple times?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it’s important to say, Carol, first of all, I haven’t evolved in my assessment of the actual programs. I consistently have said that when I came into office I evaluated them. Some of these programs I had been critical of when I was in the Senate. When I looked through specifically what was being done, my determination was that the two programs in particular that had been at issue, 215 and 702, offered valuable intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they're worth preserving. What we also saw was that some bolts needed to be tightened up on some of the programs, so we initiated some additional oversight, reforms, compliance officers, audits and so forth.
And if you look at the reports -- even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has put forward -- all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part of the reason they're not abused is because these checks are in place, and those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of the FISC.
Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community, if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records, et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too, if I wasn't inside the government.
And so in light of the changed environment where a whole set of questions have been raised, some in the most sensationalized manner possible, where these leaks are released drip by drip, one a week, to kind of maximize attention and see if they can catch us at some imprecision on something -- in light of that, it makes sense for us to go ahead, lay out what exactly we're doing, have a discussion with Congress, have a discussion with industry -- which is also impacted by this -- have a discussion with civil libertarians, and see can we do this better.
I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don't have an interest and the people at the NSA don't have an interest in doing anything other than making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get information ahead of time, that we're able to carry out that critical task. We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. And we've tried to set up a system that is as failsafe as so far at least we've been able to think of to make sure that these programs are not abused.
But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental encroachments on privacy that if haven't already taken place might take place in a future administration, or as technologies develop further.
And the other thing that’s happening is, is that as technology develops further, technology itself may provide us some additional safeguards. So, for example, if people don’t have confidence that the law, the checks and balances of the court and Congress are sufficient to give us confidence that government is not snooping, well, maybe we can embed technologies in there that prevent the snooping regardless of what government wants to do. I mean, there may be some technological fixes that provide another layer of assurance.
And so those are the kinds of things that I’m looking forward to having a conversation about.
Q Can you understand, though, why some people might not trust what you're saying right now about wanting to --
THE PRESIDENT: No, I can’t.
Q -- that they should be comfortable with the process?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the fact that I said that the programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true, without the reforms. The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable.
If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes -- now, granted, in the White House I don’t do the dishes that much -- (laughter) -- but back in the day -- and she’s a little skeptical, well, I’d like her to trust me, but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have her take my word for it.
And so the program is -- I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused. I’m comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they’re doing.
But it is absolutely true that with the expansion of technology -- this is an area that’s moving very quickly -- with the revelations that have depleted public trust, that if there are some additional things that we can do to build that trust back up, then we should do them.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. You have said that core al Qaeda has been decimated, that its leaders are on the run. Now that we’ve seen this terror threat that has resulted in embassies closed throughout the Arab world, much of Africa, do you still believe that al Qaeda has been decimated? And if I can ask in the interest of transparency, can you tell us about these drone strikes that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: What I said in the same National Defense University speech back in May that I referred to earlier is that core al Qaeda is on its heels, has been decimated. But what I also said was that al Qaeda and other extremists have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.
And I’d refer you back to that speech just back in May where I said specifically that although they are less likely to be able to carry out spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after our embassies. They have the capacity, potentially, to go after our businesses. They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where the security apparatus is weak. And that’s exactly what we are seeing right now.
So it’s entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and relatively centralized al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken apart and is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity, and to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and can kill some people.
And so that requires us, then, to make sure that we have a strategy that is strengthening those partners so that they’ve got their own capacity to deal with what are potentially manageable regional threats if these countries are a little bit stronger and have more effective CT and so forth. It means that we’ve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists who are potentially carrying out plots or are going to strengthen their capacity over time -- because they’re always testing the boundaries of, well, maybe we can try this, maybe we can do that. So this is a ongoing process. We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is to weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.
And I’m not going to discuss specific operations that have taken place. Again, in my speech in May, I was very specific about how we make these determinations about potential lethal strikes, so I would refer you to that speech.
Q So you won’t even confirm that we carried out drone strikes in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: I will not have a discussion about operational issues.
Q I hope you would defend me as well.
THE PRESIDENT: I would.
Q Okay, thank you. I want to ask you about two important dates that are coming up. October 1st you’ve got to implement your signature health care law. You recently decided on your own to delay a key part of that. And I wonder, if you pick and choose what parts of the law to implement, couldn’t your successor down the road pick and choose whether they’ll implement your law and keep it in place?
And on September 11th we’ll have the first anniversary of Benghazi. And you said on September 12th, “Make no mistake, we’ll bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” Eleven months later, where are they, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I also said that we’d get bin Laden, and I didn’t get him in 11 months. So we have informed, I think, the public that there’s a sealed indictment. It’s sealed for a reason. But we are intent on capturing those who carried out this attack, and we’re going to stay on it until we get them.
Q And you’re close to having suspects in custody?
THE PRESIDENT: I will leave it at that. But this remains a top priority for us. Anybody who attacks Americans, anybody who kills, tragically, four Americans who were serving us in a very dangerous place, we’re going to do everything we can to get those who carried out those attacks.
[Q&A on health care and the budget omitted.]
END 4:00 P.M. EDT