Americans outraged by leaked information about two top-secret government surveillance programs are "not getting the complete story," President Obama told Charlie Rose in a PBS interview recorded Sunday for air Monday night - and the intelligence community is working on filling in the holes.
One "legitimate critique" of the National Security Agency programs designed to track suspected terrorists by culling U.S. phone records and mining data from the servers of major Internet companies, the president conceded, is that because they're classified, "the public may not fully" understand them. "That can make the public kind of nervous, right?" he said. "Because they say, 'Well, Obama says it's OK, or Congress says it's OK. 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," the president continued. "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."
Mr. Obama said he wanted to clarify once and for all that "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." Though he suggested the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court hasn't turned down any requests by the FBI to wiretap a suspect, he assured it's because "folks don't go with a query unless they've got a pretty good suspicion."
"It is transparent - that's why we set up the FISA court," the president said, arguing the oversight he's constructed around the programs void newfound comparisons between his surveillance reach and the Bush administration's.
"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," he went on, "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."
But even with proper oversight, Mr. Obama said, it's a matter of give and take. Citing drunk-driving checkpoints and airport security, which "may be intrusive" at times, he argued: "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."
"...We have to make decisions about how much classified information and how much covert activity we are willing to tolerate as a society," he said.