Appearing on PBS with host Charlie Rose in a 45-minute interview aired Monday night, President Barack Obama gave his most detailed defense yet of the recently-revealed NSA spying programs, saying they are “transparent” because of the “checks and balances” built into them.
“If you are a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls or targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order,” Obama said. “There were two programs revealed by Mr. Snowden — allegedly, since there’s a criminal investigation taking place — that 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,” he continued. “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. At no point is there any content revealed because there’s no content…”
“I hear you saying, ‘I have no problem with what the NSA has been doing,'” Rose injected.
“Well, let me finish,” the president said. “Because I don’t. So, what happens then is that the FBI, if in fact it now wants to get content, if in fact it wants to start tapping that phone, its got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant.”
“But has the FISA court turned down any requests?” Rose shot back.
“Because, first of all Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small, number one,” Obama said. “Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.”
“But should this be transparent in some way?” Rose asked.
“It is transparent,” Obama answered. “That’s why we set up the FISA court.” He added that Congress has known about these programs for years, adding another layer of “checks and balances” to the system.
However, less than a year before Obama took office, the congressional oversight office at the NSA’s headquarters was reportedly unstaffed and had been sitting empty because Congress made so few oversight requests.
Even to this day, with all the renewed interest in what’s going on at the NSA, members of Congress like Sen. John Tester (D-MT) still complain that they have to play “20 questions” with NSA officials to find out even cursory information on their surveillance programs.
This video is from CBS This Morning, aired Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Watch the full interview here.