Obama on surveillance: I'm not Dick Cheney

The President defended the NSA surveillance program in an interview with Charlie Rose

Published June 18, 2013 12:51PM (EDT)

On Monday night, President Obama sat down for almost an hour with PBS's Charlie Rose to defend the NSA's surveillance program - and to defend himself from charges that when it comes to civil liberties, he's no different than Dick Cheney.

“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 [Bush-Cheney policies] all lock, stock and barrel,'” Obama said. "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.”

He continued to defend the NSA's phone surveillance program, by contending that the agency is not listening to Americans' phone calls. "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.'” Obama continued: "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."

When asked if the program should be transparent, Obama argued that “it is transparent” because of the existence of the FISA court, the panel of judges that authorizes domestic intelligence programs, but which operates mostly in secret. “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. The public may not fully know. And that can make the public kind of nervous, right?” Obama said.

He added that he's requested that intelligence officials look at “how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program.”

On Edward Snowden, who leaked information about the NSA's surveillance program to reporters, the President would not comment. “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 addressed comparisons between the war in Iraq and the Obama Administration's decision to send arms to rebels in Syria. “Well, I reject that view as well because the fact of the matter is that we’ve got serious interests there. And not only humanitarian interests - we can’t have the situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved.”

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at jrayfield@salon.com.

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Barack Obama Dick Cheney Fisa Iraq Nsa Privacy Surveillance Syria