New NSA Director Found Snowden Leaks Not Harmful To National Security

Edward Snowden provided the nation a valuable service in revealing how the government was lying to the American people and Congress about the extent of NSA surveillance. Those opposed to his release of classified information have often claimed that he endangered the country by revealing the information despite lack of any evidence that this is the case. A recent interview with the director of the NSA in The New York Times agrees with previous assessments doubting that Snowden’s revelations have done any serious harm:

The newly installed director of the National Security Agency says that while he has seen some terrorist groups alter their communications to avoid surveillance techniques revealed by Edward J. Snowden, the damage done over all by a year of revelations does not lead him to the conclusion that “the sky is falling.”

In an hourlong interview Friday in his office here at the heart of the country’s electronic eavesdropping and cyberoperations, Adm. Michael S. Rogers, who has now run the beleaguered spy agency and the military’s Cyber Command for just short of three months, described the series of steps he was taking to ensure that no one could download the trove of data that Mr. Snowden gathered — more than a million documents…

Notable in his comments was an absence of alarm about the long-term effects of the Snowden revelations. Like former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who urged colleagues in the Obama administration to calm down about the WikiLeaks revelations in 2010, Admiral Rogers seemed to suggest that, as technology progressed, the agency would find new ways to compensate for the damage done, however regrettable the leaks.

He repeated past warnings that the agency had overheard terrorist groups “specifically referencing data detailed” by Mr. Snowden’s revelations. “I have seen groups not only talk about making changes, I have seen them make changes,” he said.

But he then added: “You have not heard me as the director say, ‘Oh, my God, the sky is falling.’ I am trying to be very specific and very measured in my characterizations.”

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Republicans Attack Obama For Capturing Terrorist Involved In Benghazi Attack

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One of the major attacks on Obama from the right was that they never captured those responsible for Benghazi–never mind how many people responsible for embassy attacks under Reagan and Bush were never apprehended, or that it was Obama that got bin Laden years after Bush let him escape at Tora Bora. Now one of those responsible for Benghazi has been captured

You might think that even Republicans would find this to be reason to celebrate, but instead many did what the usually do and twist anything into a way to attack Obama.

Fox claims this was done to boost Hillary Clinton’s book tour and presidential prospects.

Allen West calls this “Orwellian message control” to distract the populace from other problems.

On talk radio Rush Limbaugh and Joe Walsh are among those who join Fox in questioning the timing.

Steve Benen, Bob Cesca, and Caitlin MacNeal have more conservative reaction.

I imagine next they will threaten impeachment because Obama didn’t inform Congress before he acted.

This should really come as no surprise. The conservative movement is packed with people who will do anything for political gain, regardless of how much it harms the country. Attacking Obama is now their number one goal, but it didn’t start with Obama. They played politics with the 9/11 attack, and used it to justify both the war in Iraq and infringements on civil liberties. More recently they have played politics with the deaths of Americans in Benghazi. These are also the people who have fought to hinder economic recovery after their policies crashed the economy, and caused a lowering of our credit rating while playing politics over the debt ceiling.

Harry Reid has responded to the Republican attacks:

It doesn’t matter what your ideology is, you should feel good about this. There’s no conspiracy here, this is actual news. But the reaction of some of the Republicans, I’ve been told, is to downplay and insult the brave men and women of our special forces and the FBI. They’re trying to say, oh, it’s no big deal. I wonder if the men and women who captured the terrorist agree. But the Republicans said it’s no big deal.

Even in these days of polarization, created by the obstruction, the delay, and diversion of the Republicans, even in these days of polarization, their reaction is shocking and disgusting. They’re so obsessed with criticism, criticizing anything President Obama does. They’ll go so far as to sit here and insult the men and women in uniform and in law enforcement. They should stop and think, just for a little bit, about what it’s like to put your life on the line and to do something for our country — that’s what they did. They’re insulting these good men and women who did some courageous things, heroic things, in order to criticize President Obama. I think they’ve lost touch with reality; it’s really pathetic, there’s no other word for it.

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NSA Increases Credibility Gap With Latest Claims About Edward Snowden

The documents released by Edward Snowden have already demonstrated that the government has lied to the American people, and to our representatives in Congress, regarding violations of the law and the Constitution in conducting surveillance of American citizens following 9/11. Just as the attack was used by the Bush administration to launch the war in Iraq based upon lies, the attack was also used to greatly expand government surveillance in an atmosphere where there was too little scrutiny of government actions. There have been a lot of side issues raised to try to distract from these real issues. The latest such side issue raised by the NSA actually casts even more doubt on their credibility.

The government is denying claims made by Edward Snowden since he first became known publicly that he had first tried unsuccessfully to complain about these abuses internally. They are doing this based upon releasing a  single email he had sent in April 2013 which did not raise major concerns. Here is a portion of Snowden’s response:

The NSA’s new discovery of written contact between me and its lawyers – after more than a year of denying any such contact existed – raises serious concerns. It reveals as false the NSA’s claim to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post in December of last year, that “after extensive investigation, including interviews with his former NSA supervisors and co-workers, we have not found any evidence to support Mr. Snowden’s contention that he brought these matters to anyone’s attention.”

Today’s release is incomplete, and does not include my correspondence with the Signals Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Compliance, which believed that a classified executive order could take precedence over an act of Congress, contradicting what was just published. It also did not include concerns about how indefensible collection activities – such as breaking into the back-haul communications of major US internet companies – are sometimes concealed under E.O. 12333 to avoid Congressional reporting requirements and regulations.

If the White House is interested in the whole truth, rather than the NSA’s clearly tailored and incomplete leak today for a political advantage, it will require the NSA to ask my former colleagues, management, and the senior leadership team about whether I, at any time, raised concerns about the NSA’s improper and at times unconstitutional surveillance activities. It will not take long to receive an answer.

Ultimately, whether my disclosures were justified does not depend on whether I raised these concerns previously. That’s because the system is designed to ensure that even the most valid concerns are suppressed and ignored, not acted upon. The fact that two powerful Democratic Senators – Ron Wyden and Mark Udall – knew of mass surveillance that they believed was abusive and felt constrained to do anything about it underscores how futile such internal action is — and will remain — until these processes are reformed.

Still, the fact is that I did raise such concerns both verbally and in writing, and on multiple, continuing occasions – as I have always said, and as NSA has always denied. Just as when the NSA claimed it followed German laws in Germany just weeks before it was revealed that they did not, or when NSA said they did not engage in economic espionage a few short months before it was revealed they actually did so on a regular and recurring basis, or even when they claimed they had “no domestic spying program” before we learned they collected the phone records of every American they could, so too are today’s claims that “this is only evidence we have of him reporting concerns” false.

Considering all the evidence that has been released of dishonesty on the part of the NSA and its defenders, I find Snowden’s statements that he had raised concerns about NSA activities to sound far more credible than the current NSA claim that this suddenly discovered email constitutes his sole complaint.

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Republican Benghazi Truthers Go Wild In Preparation For Midterm Elections

What do the Republicans do when the Affordable Care Act is exceeding expectations, their latest  lies have been exposed, and there are no real scandals for them to attack with? Benghazi. Sure it has been investigated over and over again with nothing coming up, but that doesn’t matter. Politics, especially in a year with a midterm election, is all about firing up the base to get out to vote, and we know the Republican base doesn’t care about facts. They have a new email which adds nothing new to the story, but that is apparently enough for John Boehner to call for yet another investigation. Or as Paul Waldman put it, The GOP hunt for a Watergate-scale scandal continues (even though there is nothing there).

David Weigel reported on the “shocking” news that the email showed that the White House agreed with the CIA talking points.

But it’s just lazy journalism or lazy politicking to blame Rhodes for a talking point that was fed from the CIA. The White House’s shifty-sounding excuse, that the “demonstration” story line came not from its spin factory but from the CIA, remains surprisingly accurate. (And I mean really lazy. It does not take very much time to compare the new Rhodes email to the previously known timeline of emails.)

From there Weigel presented a time line which you might want to go through to help put all this nonsense into perspective.

Peter Weber at The Week tried to find an actual crime which the Republicans might be accusing Obama of:

If the crime is that the Obama administration, two months before a presidential election, was concerned with putting the best face on the attack, Team Obama is probably guilty. But the emails do not suggest that the administration lied to the American public, let alone orchestrated a vast cover-up of some massive intelligence or policy failure.

Maybe they need a new committee to investigate as Darrel Issa’s witch hunt is falling apart.

If Congress really wants to investigate preventable deaths of Americans, they can look at how George Bush ignored intelligence briefings warning about the 9/11 attack, and then responded by sending more Americans to their death in the Iraq war based upon lies. Rather than dwelling further on Susan Rice, they might look at how Condoleezza Rice lied when she denied receiving the anti-terrorist strategy from the Clinton administration. They could look at previous embassy attacks under Republican presidents, including the over 320 Americans who died in embassy attacks under Ronald Reagan or question why Republicans cut funding for embassy security.

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Sarah Palin Saw A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine From Her House

I really wouldn’t mind if Sarah Palin just made her amusing quip about the Ukraine crisis saying “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska” on her Facebook page. It is understandable that she would react this way, both in response to criticism for giving a foreign crisis example of Russia invading Ukraine in 2008 and for the impression of her by Tina Fey. Palin and other conservatives just should be happy with a quick quip such as this an not overplay their hand and pretend that Sarah Palin really had the slightest idea as to what she was talking about.

Steve M. reviewed this in far more detail than is probably needed considering that nobody really needs an explanation as to why Palin is not really an expert on Russian policy, or anything else. Steve pointed out that Palin, or actually her speech writer as this was in a prepared speech, raised the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine during the first six months of his presidency to test Obama. That would be the first six months of his first term. In the same speech Palin criticized Obama for his statement during the campaign that he might go into Pakistan to go after known terrorist targets without their permission. In other words, she attacked Obama for doing what he did to kill Osama bin Laden.

With the full context, Sarah Palin doesn’t look all that bright on foreign policy but thanks for helping us recall Tina Fey’s spot-on impressions. The video and transcript of her routine in which she had Palin say “And I can see Russia from my house” can be found here.

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Democratic Strategy For 2014: Get Out The Vote But Don’t Ignore The Message

This should be a bad year for Democrats if we go by historical trends. The party holding the presidency typically loses Congressional seats in their sixth year. It makes matters worse when their are economic problems, even if many people do realize that they are primarily due to a combination of problems created by the Bush administration and problems perpetuated by Republican actions to hinder economic recovery in Congress.

Making matters worse, the Democrats have to defend Senate seats in red states, including states where incumbent Democrats are not running for reelection. Democrats do worse in off year elections, when young voters and minorities are less likely to vote compared to presidential elections. Republicans also have a huge advantage in a system where small Republican states receive as many Senators as far larger Democratic states. Their advantage extends to the house. Between gerrymandering and the higher concentration of Democrats in cities. Republican will still control Congress unless Democrats receive about seven percent more votes.

On top of this, Republicans see voter suppression as a valid electoral strategy.

Democrats did much better in 2008 and 2012 than in 2010. They also expect to do much better in 2016, including picking up several Senate seats due to the playing field being reversed with Republicans being forced to defend Senate seats in blue states. The Democrats see the solution as making 2014 more like 2012. Their strategy:

The Democrats’ plan to hold on to their narrow Senate majority goes by the name “Bannock Street project.” It runs through 10 states, includes a $60 million investment and requires more than 4,000 paid staff members. And the effort will need all of that — and perhaps more — to achieve its goal, which is nothing short of changing the character of the electorate in a midterm cycle.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is preparing its largest and most data-driven ground game yet, relying on an aggressive combination of voter registration, get-out-the-vote and persuasion efforts.

They hope to make the 2014 midterm election more closely resemble a presidential election year, when more traditional Democratic constituencies — single women, minorities and young voters — turn out to vote in higher numbers, said Guy Cecil, the committee’s executive director.

A campaign based upon getting out the vote isn’t terribly exciting, but it is a realization that this is how elections are won in this polarized era. There aren’t very many swing voters, but there can be huge differences between which party does better in getting their supporters out to vote.

Besides, a high tech get out the vote campaign and an old fashioned campaign to try to sway voters are not mutually exclusive. I do hope that the Democrats also think about better ways to get out their message as the Republicans often win by doing a better job here. Sure the Republican message is pure lies, claiming to be the party of small government while supporting increased government intrusion in the lives of individuals, and primarily using big government to redistribute wealth to the top one tenth of one percent.

Democrats need a coherent message, but they often fail because they are afraid of alienating some voters by saying what they believe in. I suspect that this cowardice turns off even more voters, along with reducing the motivation of their supporters to turn out. Once again, a campaign based upon promoting ideas and one based upon voter turnout are not mutually exclusive. They can be complimentary.

Rather than shying away from social issues, Democrats need to campaign as the party which supports keeping government out of our personal lives and out of the bedroom.

Rather than running away from the Affordable Car e Act, Democrats need to stress its benefits. Beyond all the millions who are assisted by the ability to obtain affordable health coverage, there are the two million people who are freed from the “insurance trap” which forces them to work in jobs they do not otherwise want or need in order to obtain health insurance. As the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has shown, the Affordable Care Act will help reduce unemployment, decease the deficit, and strengthen the economy. Besides, we saw what happened to the Democrats when they tried running away from Obamacare in 2010.

In recent years Democrats have taken national security away from Republicans as an issue. If the Republicans want to run on their debunked conspiracy theories about Benghazi, it might be time for Democrats to remind voters of the very real failings of Republicans on 9/11, from ignoring warnings before the attack to invading the wrong country in retaliation. We saw how that turned out. It is also time for Democrats to take additional issues from the Republicans.

Challenge voters who support Republicans based upon misinformation. If they are concerned about the deficit, point out how much the deficit has dropped under Obama (as it previously dropped under Bill Clinton). Repeatedly we see polls in which voters support liberal positions but identify themselves as conservatives. They say the oppose Obamacare but also support most of the individual components of the Affordable Care Act. The only way to fight the misinformation spread by Fox is for Democrats to clearly say what they believe in and defend their positions.

Democrats are planning to run on income inequality. That is fine, but they better make sure that they make it clear that the reason is that the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one tenth of one percent is a major cause of crippling the economy and keeping down the middle class. Failure to make this connection just plays into Republican memes.

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Three Senators Call For Reforming NSA Surveillance

Three Senators, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore), Mark Udall (D-Colo), and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M), have proposed legislation to help restore  Fourth Amendment privacy protections following recent revelations regarding NSA surveillance. They have an op-ed in The New York Times which explains their position and their opposition to currently proposed legislation form the Senate intelligence committee which would codify current surveillance without providing privacy protections. Their op-ed begins:

End the N.S.A. Dragnet, Now

THE framers of the Constitution declared that government officials had no power to seize the records of individual Americans without evidence of wrongdoing, and they embedded this principle in the Fourth Amendment. The bulk collection of Americans’ telephone records — so-called metadata — by the National Security Agency is, in our view, a clear case of a general warrant that violates the spirit of the framers’ intentions. This intrusive program was authorized under a secret legal process by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, so for years American citizens did not have the knowledge needed to challenge the infringement of their privacy rights.

Our first priority is to keep Americans safe from the threat of terrorism. If government agencies identify a suspected terrorist, they should absolutely go to the relevant phone companies to get that person’s phone records. But this can be done without collecting the records of millions of law-abiding Americans. We recall Benjamin Franklin’s famous admonition that those who would give up essential liberty in the pursuit of temporary safety will lose both and deserve neither.

The usefulness of the bulk collection program has been greatly exaggerated. We have yet to see any proof that it provides real, unique value in protecting national security. In spite of our repeated requests, the N.S.A. has not provided evidence of any instance when the agency used this program to review phone records that could not have been obtained using a regular court order or emergency authorization.

Despite this, the surveillance reform bill recently ratified by the Senate Intelligence Committee would explicitly permit the government to engage in dragnet collection as long as there were rules about when officials could look at these phone records. It would also give intelligence agencies wide latitude to conduct warrantless searches for Americans’ phone calls and emails.

This is not the true reform that poll after poll has shown the American people want. It is preserving business as usual. When the Bill of Rights was adopted, it established that Americans’ papers and effects should be seized only when there was specific evidence of suspicious activity. It did not permit government agencies to issue general warrants as long as records seized were reviewed with the permission of senior officials.

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Afghanistan Planning To Resume Public Stoning As Punishment For Adultery

Attacking Afghanistan made far more sense than to attack Iraq as George Bush did following the 9/11 attack. * I could see an attack to disrupt al Qaeda and was happy to see bin Laden killed, but questioned if we would see any long-term benefits from installing a government there. This somewhat confirms my skepticism–Afghanistan is now planning to restore the Taliban policy of stoning women for adultery:

Afghanistan is planning to reintroduce public stoning as punishment for adultery 12 years after the Taliban was ousted from power, according to a new draft penal code.

The move has shocked human rights campaigners and will dismay donors who have poured billions of pounds into the country for reconstruction.

It will be viewed as another backwards step at the end of a year that has seen women’s rights undermined, with a slew of legislation and murders of prominent women.

Human Rights Watch called for international donors to withhold funding if the government goes ahead with the plan.

“It is absolutely shocking that 12 years after the fall of the Taliban government, the Karzai administration might bring back stoning as a punishment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW…

As repulsive as both groups are, stoning is far worse than the forced vaginal probes and restrictions on reproductive rights which are supported by the American Taliban.

(* I would hope that by now the whole Truther line that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration instead of a terrorist act by al Qaeda has been forgotten. In case anyone is still interested in that nonsense, Noam Chomsky has recently joined many others in debunking that conspiracy theory. Chomsky mocked “people around who spend an hour on the Internet and think they know a lot physics.” On the other hand, that is how the Internet works. How many other people on the far right with no knowledge of biology or climate science are coming up with arguments against evolution and global warming?)

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Detention of Glenn Greenwald’s Parter Results In Further Questions Of Government Secrecy

Airports have become a zone where we have less rights and are more at the mercy of government intrusion. Over the weekend, Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained for nine hours (the maximum allowed under British law). For Andrew Sullivan, this tipped the balance:

Readers know I have been grappling for a while with the vexing question of the balance between the surveillance state and the threat of Jihadist terrorism. When the NSA leaks burst onto the scene, I was skeptical of many of the large claims made by civil libertarians and queasily sympathetic to a program that relied on meta-data alone, as long as it was transparent, had Congressional buy-in, did not accidentally expose innocent civilians to grotesque privacy loss, and was watched by a strong FISA court.

Since then, I’ve watched the debate closely and almost all the checks I supported have been proven illusory. The spying is vastly more extensive than anyone fully comprehended before; the FISA court has been revealed as toothless and crippled; and many civilians have had their privacy accidentally violated over 3000 times. The president, in defending the indefensible, has damaged himself and his core reputation for honesty and candor. These cumulative revelations have exposed this program as, at a minimum, dangerous to core liberties and vulnerable to rank abuse. I’ve found myself moving further and further to Glenn’s position.

What has kept me from embracing it entirely has been the absence of any real proof than any deliberate abuse has taken place and arguments that it has helped prevent terror attacks. This may be too forgiving a standard. If a system is ripe for abuse, history tells us the only question is not if such abuse will occur, but when. So it is a strange and awful irony that the Coalition government in Britain has today clinched the case for Glenn.

A disclosure upfront: I have met David Miranda as part of a my friendship with Glenn Greenwald. The thought of his being detained by the British police for nine hours because his partner embarrassed the American government really sickens me at a gut level. I immediately think of my husband, Aaron, being detained in connection to work I have done – something that would horrify and frighten me. We should, of course, feel this empathy with people we have never known – but the realization is all the more gob-smacking when it comes so close to home. So of course my instinct is to see this exactly as Glenn has today.

This was more of an emotional response than a fact-based one, yet it is a response which many feel sympathy with, along with many in the news media. Technically the use of a law in the U.K. (which many there agree needs to be reformed) says nothing about NSA abuses by the United States. Looking at just the law, and not questions as to whether Snowden did the right thing in releasing this specific classified information, there does appear to be some justification for investigating Miranda (even if handled in an excessive and abusive manner). The New York Times reports:

Mr. Miranda was in Berlin to deliver documents related to Mr. Greenwald’s investigation into government surveillance to Ms. Poitras, Mr. Greenwald said. Ms. Poitras, in turn, gave Mr. Miranda different documents to pass to Mr. Greenwald. Those documents, which were stored on encrypted thumb drives, were confiscated by airport security, Mr. Greenwald said. All of the documents came from the trove of materials provided to the two journalists by Mr. Snowden. The British authorities seized all of his electronic media — including video games, DVDs and data storage devices — and did not return them, Mr. Greenwald said.

Despite the attention this detention has received, the real issue remains the abuses by the United States government regarding surveillance, and the failure of those bodies entrusted to provide oversight. The detention of Miranda is a side issue. However on an emotional level seeing someone detained for nine hours and having their property seized is a more tangible warning of the dangers of government abusing its power, for many easier to understand than the evidence released to date.

Updates: The White House had advanced notification but denies having any role in the detention. Glenn Greenwald is threatening to release UK secrets in retaliation.

Update II: It looks like Reuter’s took Greenwald’s statement out of context in their interview and a better summation might be that Greenwald said he would not let this deter him from continuing to release documents.

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Barack Obama Responds To Questions Regarding NSA Surveillance

Barack Obama has responded to some of the civil liberties concerns raised recently in an interview with Charlie Rose. He did provided two proposals to respond to the questions raised about the surveillance programs.  Here is a partial transcript via Buzzfeed:

Barack Obama: Well, in the end, and what I’ve said, and I continue to believe, is that we don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice. That doesn’t mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, in any given action that we take. So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports, which when we were growing up that wasn’t the case…. And so that’s a tradeoff we make, the same way we make a tradeoff about drunk driving. We say, “Occasionally there are going to be checkpoints. They may be intrusive.” To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom. I don’t think anybody says we’re no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports.

Charlie Rose: But there is a balance here.

Barack Obama: But there is a balance, so I’m going to get to your — get to your question. 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. And so every program that we engage in, what I’ve said is “Let’s examine and make sure that we’re making the right tradeoffs.” Now, with respect to the NSA, a government agency that has been in the intelligence gathering business for a very long time —

Charlie Rose: Bigger and better than everybody else.

Barack Obama: Bigger and better than everybody else, and we should take pride in that because they’re extraordinary professionals; they are dedicated to keeping the American people safe. 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 emails … and have not. 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….

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. There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden, allegedly, since there’s a criminal investigation taking place, and they caused all the ruckus. Program number one, called the 2015 Program, what that does is it gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there. Now, if the NSA through some other sources, maybe through the FBI, maybe through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD. Get a number that where there’s a reasonable, articulable suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to Al-Qaeda and some other international terrorist actors. Then, what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see did any of the — did this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out. A report will be produced. It will be turned over to the FBI. At no point is any content revealed because there’s no content that —

Charlie Rose: So I hear you saying, I have no problem with what NSA has been doing.

Barack Obama: Well, let me — let me finish, because I don’t. So, what happens is that the FBI — if, in fact, it now wants to get content; if, in fact, it wants to start tapping that phone — it’s got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant.

Charlie Rose: But has FISA court turned down any request?

Barack Obama: The — because — the — first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.

Charlie Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?

Barack Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court…. 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.” 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.

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.

Charlie Rose: So, what are you going to change? Are you going to issue any kind of instructions to the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. Clapper, and say, “I want you to change it at least in this way”?

Barack Obama: Here’s what we need to do. But before I say that — and I know that we’re running out of time, but I want to make sure I get very clear on this. Because there has been a lot of mis-information out there. There is a second program called the 702 program. And what that does is that does not apply to any U.S. person. Has to be a foreign entity. It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers — phone numbers, emails, et cetera. Those — and the process has all been approved by the courts — you can send to providers — the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you. And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to U.S. persons. And it’s only in these very narrow bands. So, you asked, what should we do? …What I’ve said is — is that what is a legitimate concern — a legitimate critique — is that because these are classified programs — even though we have all these systems of checks and balances, Congress is overseeing it, federal courts are overseeing it — despite all that, the public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right? Because they say, “Well, Obama says it’s okay — or Congress says it’s okay. I don’t know who this judge is. I’m nervous about it.” 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. And they are in that process of doing so now so that everything that I’m describing to you today, people, the public, newspapers, etc., can look at because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they’re not getting the complete story.

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.

Charlie Rose: Let me just ask you this. If someone leaks all this information about NSA surveillance, as Mr. Snowden did…. Did it cause national security damage to the United States, and therefore, should he be prosecuted?

Barack Obama: I’m not going to comment on prosecution…. The case has been referred to the DOJ for criminal investigation… and possible extradition. I will leave it up to them to answer those questions.

Obama Also Cited a Prosecution in Defense of the Programs

This defense has been widely dismissed:

The one thing people should understand about all these programs though is they have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well. And, you know, you’ve got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross country trying to blow up a New York subway system. 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. And then the question becomes, “Can we trust all the systems government enough as long as they’re checking each other that our privacy is not being abused, that we are able to prevent some of the tragedies that unfortunately there are people out there who are going to continue to try to — try to strike against us.

Obama’s two proposals, declassifying some of the information so that the public can better evaluate the surveillance programs and setting up a privacy and civil liberties advisory board, are steps in the right direction. We will need to see how much is really declassified and how effective this board turns out to be. While the system has not been as transparent as Obama suggests in this interview, the system has been more transparent under Obama than under George Bush.

I am not reassured by his response to the question on the FISA courts when Obama responded, “the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.” The number of requests would be expected to be lower when such massive amounts of data are being requested in a single request. Requesting all phone records, even if only metadata, is not indicative of a query with a good suspicion.

I do consider it a point in Obama’s favor that he is not commenting on prosecution of Snowden other than referring it to the Department of Justice. This is far preferable to people like John Boehner, Dick Cheney, and even Diane Feinstein calling him a traitor. I am not very worried about abuses occurring under Barack Obama (not that we can be certain they haven’t occurred). I am more concerned that we are building a infrastructure for a police state which could be misused by people like Dick Cheney or John Boehner

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