President Obama in a wide-ranging interview that aired late Monday gave a robust defense of his administration’s phone and Internet surveillance programs and his decision to provide light weapons to the Syrian anti-government rebels, seeking to push back against growing criticism of his national security policies.
Obama gave his most lengthy accounting to date of the National Security Agency secretly collecting phone records and Internet data, brushing off comparisons to his predecessor, George W. Bush, but offering no concrete measures to rein in the programs.
“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,’” the president told PBS’ Charlie Rose in a 45-minute discussion. “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?”
Obama insisted that the NSA programs were subject to significant oversight but acknowledged that because the public was kept in the dark about such methods, they might have natural suspicions about government overreach. And the president vowed to engage in a national debate about the tradeoffs between privacy and national security.
Obama said the surveillance methods had foiled terror plots both domestically and overseas. He added that his administration would work to declassify more information about the NSA programs to provide a fuller portrait of how the tactics are employed.
That Obama even chose to give the extensive interview showcases White House concerns about hardening perceptions surrounding the president’s surveillance programs. New polling data shows a growing number of Americans are expressing doubts about Obama’s trustworthiness, a trend that could spell disaster for his second-term agenda.
Obama taped the interview with Rose at the White House Sunday before departing for the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland, where Syria has dominated talks among world leaders.
Obama declined to specify exactly what weapons he would provide to the anti-government rebels in their civil war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the president rejected the notion that fewer people would have died — more than 93,000 have been killed already — had he intervened earlier.
“This argument that somehow we had gone in earlier, or heavier in some fashion, that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong,” Obama said.
And he seemed to dismiss the idea of establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, which some, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have recommended.
“Syrian Air Force isn’t particularly good,” Obama told Rose. “They can’t aim very well. It’s been happening on the ground.”
And Obama was quick to remind Rose that the United States had recently rushed into multiple conflicts in the Middle East, ultimately resulting in extended occupations overwhelmingly opposed by the American public.