Posted on December 20, 2013
Obama: I Have Confidence That The NSA Is Not Spying On Americans Or Snooping Around
MARK FELSENTHAL: Thank you, Mr. President. One of the most significant events of this year was the revelation of the surveillance by the National Security Agency. As you review how to rein in the National Security Agency, a federal judge says that, for example, the government has failed to cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata actually stopped an imminent attack. Are you able to identify any specific examples when it did so? Are you convinced that the collection of that data is useful to national security to continue as it is?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Let me talk more broadly, and then I'll talk specifically about the program you're referring to.
As you know, the independent panel that I put together came back with a series of recommendations, 46 in total. I had an extensive meeting with them down in the Situation Room to review all the recommendations that they've made. I want to thank them publicly because I think they did an excellent job and took my charge very seriously, which is I told them, I want you to look from top to bottom at what we're doing and evaluate whether or not the current structures that we have and the current programs that we have are properly addressing both our continuing need to keep ourselves secure and to prevent terrorist attacks or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other threats to the homeland, and are we also making sure that we're taking seriously rule of law and our concerns about privacy and civil liberties.
So what we're doing now is evaluating all the recommendations that have been made. Over the next several weeks I'm going to assess, based on conversations not just with the intelligence community but others in government and outside of government, how we might apply and incorporate their recommendations. And I'm going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January, where I'll be able to say, here are the recommendations that we think make sense, here are ones that we think as promising but still need to be refined further, here's how it relates to the work we're doing not just -- not just internally but also in partnership with other countries.
And so I'm -- I'm taking this very seriously, because I think, as I've said before, this is debate that needed to be had.
One specific program, the 215 program, is the metadata, the bulk collection of phone numbers and exchanges that have taken place. That has probably gotten the most attention, at least with respect to domestic audiences. And what I've said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone and that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations of terrorist threats.
And I think it's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data. But what is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that's what the judge in the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we're taking those into account.
The question we're going to have to ask is can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that in fact the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing. I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that.
And we've got to provide more confidence to the international community. In some ways, what has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans. We've had less legal constraint in terms of what we're doing internationally.
But I think part of what's been interesting about this whole exercise is recognizing that in a virtual world, some of these boundaries don't matter anymore. And just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should, and the values that we've got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, I think, perhaps more systematically than we've done in the past.