10 August 2013
Obama On NSA 9 August 2013
A sends video link:
Two related NSA and DoJ reports released 9 August 2013:
2013-0979.pdf DoJ: NSA Bulk Collection of Telephone Metadata August 9, 2013
2013-0978.pdf NSA: Missions, Authorities, Oversight, Partners August 9, 2013
[Excerpts pertaining to NSA.]
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
August 09, 2013
Remarks by the President in a Press Conference
3:09 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon, everybody. Please have a seat.
Over the past few weeks, Ive been talking about what I believe should
be our number-one priority as a country -- building a better bargain for
the middle class and for Americans who want to work their way into the middle
class. At the same time, Im focused on my number-one responsibility
as Commander-in-Chief, and that's keeping the American people safe. And in
recent days, weve been reminded once again about the threats to our
As I said at the National Defense University back in May, in meeting those
threats we have to strike the right balance between protecting our security
and preserving our freedoms. And as part of this rebalancing, I called for
a review of our surveillance programs. Unfortunately, rather than an orderly
and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms,
repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very
passionate, but not always fully informed way.
Now, keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about
these programs, and as President, Ive taken steps to make sure they
have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards
to prevent abuse and protect the rights of the American people. But given
the history of abuse by governments, its right to ask questions about
surveillance -- particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our
Im also mindful of how these issues are viewed overseas, because American
leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy
and American openness -- because what makes us different from other countries
is not simply our ability to secure our nation, its the way we do it
-- with open debate and democratic process.
In other words, its not enough for me, as President, to have confidence
in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them as
well. And that's why, over the last few weeks, Ive consulted members
of Congress who come at this issue from many different perspectives. Ive
asked the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to review where our
counterterrorism efforts and our values come into tension, and I directed
my national security team to be more transparent and to pursue reforms of
our laws and practices.
And so, today, Id like to discuss four specific steps -- not all inclusive,
but some specific steps that were going to be taking very shortly to
move the debate forward.
First, I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section
215 of the Patriot Act -- the program that collects telephone records. As
Ive said, this program is an important tool in our effort to disrupt
terrorist plots. And it does not allow the government to listen to any phone
calls without a warrant. But given the scale of this program, I understand
the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse.
So after having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians,
I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional
confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.
For instance, we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater
transparency, and constraints on the use of this authority. So I look forward
to working with Congress to meet those objectives.
Second, Ill work with Congress to improve the publics confidence
in the oversight conducted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,
known as the FISC. The FISC was created by Congress to provide judicial review
of certain intelligence activities so that a federal judge must find that
our actions are consistent with the Constitution. However, to build greater
confidence, I think we should consider some additional changes to the FISC.
One of the concerns that people raise is that a judge reviewing a request
from the government to conduct programmatic surveillance only hears one side
of the story -- may tilt it too far in favor of security, may not pay enough
attention to liberty. And while Ive got confidence in the court and
I think theyve done a fine job, I think we can provide greater assurances
that the court is looking at these issues from both perspectives -- security
So, specifically, we can take steps to make sure civil liberties concerns
have an independent voice in appropriate cases by ensuring that the
governments position is challenged by an adversary.
Number three, we can, and must, be more transparent. So Ive directed
the intelligence community to make public as much information about these
programs as possible. Weve already declassified unprecedented information
about the NSA, but we can go further. So at my direction, the Department
of Justice will make public the legal rationale for the governments
collection activities under Section 215 of the Patriot Act. The NSA is taking
steps to put in place a full-time civil liberties and privacy officer, and
released information that details its mission, authorities, and oversight.
And finally, the intelligence community is creating a website that will serve
as a hub for further transparency, and this will give Americans and the world
the ability to learn more about what our intelligence community does and
what it doesnt do, how it carries out its mission, and why it does
Fourth, were forming a high-level group of outside experts to review
our entire intelligence and communications technologies. We need new thinking
for a new era. We now have to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle
in the haystack of global telecommunications. And meanwhile, technology has
given governments -- including our own -- unprecedented capability to monitor
So I am tasking this independent group to step back and review our capabilities
-- particularly our surveillance technologies. And theyll consider
how we can maintain the trust of the people, how we can make sure that there
absolutely is no abuse in terms of how these surveillance technologies are
used, ask how surveillance impacts our foreign policy -- particularly in
an age when more and more information is becoming public. And they will provide
an interim report in 60 days and a final report by the end of this year,
so that we can move forward with a better understanding of how these programs
impact our security, our privacy, and our foreign policy.
So all these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust
that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values. And to others
around the world, I want to make clear once again that America is not interested
in spying on ordinary people. Our intelligence is focused, above all, on
finding the information thats necessary to protect our people, and
-- in many cases -- protect our allies.
Its true we have significant capabilities. Whats also true is
we show a restraint that many governments around the world don't even think
to do, refuse to show -- and that includes, by the way, some of Americas
most vocal critics. We shouldnt forget the difference between the ability
of our government to collect information online under strict guidelines and
for narrow purposes, and the willingness of some other governments to throw
their own citizens in prison for what they say online.
And let me close with one additional thought. The men and women of our
intelligence community work every single day to keep us safe because they
love this country and believe in our values. They're patriots. And I believe
that those who have lawfully raised their voices on behalf of privacy and
civil liberties are also patriots who love our country and want it to live
up to our highest ideals. So this is how were going to resolve our
differences in the United States -- through vigorous public debate, guided
by our Constitution, with reverence for our history as a nation of laws,
and with respect for the facts.
So, with that, Im going to take some questions. And lets see
who weve got here. Were going to start with Julie Pace of AP.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wanted to ask about some of the foreign policy
fallout from the disclosure of the NSA programs that you discussed. Your
spokesman said yesterday that theres no question that the U.S. relationship
with Russia has gotten worse since Vladimir Putin took office. How much of
that decline do you attribute directly to Mr. Putin, given that you seem
to have had a good working relationship with his predecessor? Also will there
be any additional punitive measures taken against Russia for granting asylum
to Edward Snowden? Or is canceling the September summit really all you can
do given the host of issues the U.S. needs Russian cooperation for? Thank
THE PRESIDENT: Good. I think theres always been some tension in the
U.S.-Russian relationship after the fall of the Soviet Union. Theres
been cooperation in some areas; theres been competition in others.
It is true that in my first four years, in working with President Medvedev,
we made a lot of progress. We got START done -- or START II done. We were
able to cooperate together on Iran sanctions. They provided us help in terms
of supplying our troops in Afghanistan. We were able to get Russia into the
WTO -- which is not just good for Russia, its good for our companies
and businesses because they're more likely then to follow international norms
and rules. So there's been a lot of good work that has been done and that
is going to continue to be done. What's also true is, is that when President
Putin -- who was prime minister when Medvedev was president -- came back
into power I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was
anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold
War contests between the United States and Russia. And I've encouraged Mr.
Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues -- with mixed
And I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging
differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around
human rights issues, where it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause,
reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and
calibrate the relationship so that we're doing things that are good for the
United States and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that
there just are going to be some differences and we're not going to be able
to completely disguise them.
And that's okay. Keep in mind that although I'm not attending the summit,
I'll still be going to St. Petersburg because Russia is hosting the G20.
That's important business in terms of our economy and our jobs and all the
issues that are of concern to Americans.
I know that one question that's been raised is how do we approach the Olympics.
I want to just make very clear right now I do not think it's appropriate
to boycott the Olympics. We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are
training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed. Nobody is more
offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've
been seeing in Russia. But as I said just this week, I've spoken out against
that not just with respect to Russia but a number of other countries where
we continue to do work with them, but we have a strong disagreement on this
And one of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and
lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think
would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing
there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then it probably
makes their team weaker.
Q Are there going to be any additional punitive measures for Russia, beyond
canceling the summit?
THE PRESIDENT: Keep in mind that our decision to not participate in the summit
was not simply around Mr. Snowden. It had to do with the fact that, frankly,
on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia
has not moved. And so we don't consider that strictly punitive.
We're going to assess where the relationship can advance U.S. interests and
increase peace and stability and prosperity around the world. Where it can,
were going to keep on working with them. Where we have differences,
were going to say so clearly. And my hope is, is that over time, Mr.
Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact,
if the two countries are working together we can probably advance the betterment
of both peoples.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Given that you just announced a whole bunch of
reforms based on essentially the leaks that Edward Snowden made on all of
these surveillance programs, is that change -- is your mindset changed about
him? Is he now more a whistle-blower than he is a hacker, as you called him
at one point, or somebody that shouldnt be filed charges? And should
he be provided more protection? Is he a patriot? You just used those words.
And then just to follow up on the personal -- I want to follow up on a personal
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, I want to make sure -- everybody is asking one question
it would be helpful.
Q No, I understand. It was a part of a question that you didnt answer.
Can you get stuff done with Russia, big stuff done, without having a good
personal relationship with Putin?
THE PRESIDENT: I dont have a bad personal relationship with Putin.
When we have conversations, theyre candid, theyre blunt; oftentimes,
theyre constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language
and hes got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the
back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when were in conversations
together, oftentimes its very productive.
So the issue here really has to do with where do they want to take Russia
-- its substantive on a policy front. And --
THE PRESIDENT: No. Right now, this is just a matter of where Mr. Putin and
the Russian people want to go. I think if they are looking forward into the
21st century and how they can advance their economy, and make sure that some
of our joint concerns around counterterrorism are managed effectively, then
I think we can work together. If issues are framed as if the U.S. is for
it then Russia should be against it, or were going to be finding ways
where we can poke each other at every opportunity, then probably we dont
get as much stuff done.
See, now Ive forgotten your first question, which presumably was the
more important one. No, I dont think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. As
I said in my opening remarks, I called for a thorough review of our surveillance
operations before Mr. Snowden made these leaks.
My preference -- and I think the American peoples preference -- would
have been for a lawful, orderly examination of these laws, a thoughtful
fact-based debate that would then lead us to a better place. Because I never
made claims that all the surveillance technologies that have developed since
the time some of these laws had been put in place somehow didn't require
potentially some additional reforms. That's exactly what I called for.
So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden has been charged with three felonies.
If, in fact, he believes that what he did was right, then, like every American
citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make
his case. If the concern was that somehow this was the only way to get this
information out to the public, I signed an executive order well before Mr.
Snowden leaked this information that provided whistleblower protection to
the intelligence community -- for the first time. So there were other avenues
available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they
needed to question government actions.
But having said that, once the leaks have happened, what weve seen
is information come out in dribs and in drabs, sometimes coming out sideways.
Once the information is out, the administration comes in, tries to correct
the record. But by that time, its too late or weve moved on,
and a general impression has, I think, taken hold not only among the American
public but also around the world that somehow were out there willy-nilly
just sucking in information on everybody and doing what we please with it.
That's not the case. Our laws specifically prohibit us from surveilling U.S.
persons without a warrant. And there are a whole range of safeguards that
have been put in place to make sure that that basic principle is abided by.
But what is clear is that whether, because of the instinctive bias of the
intelligence community to keep everything very close -- and probably whats
a fair criticism is my assumption that if we had checks and balances from
the courts and Congress, that that traditional system of checks and balances
would be enough to give people assurance that these programs were run probably
-- that assumption I think proved to be undermined by what happened after
the leaks. I think people have questions about this program.
And so, as a consequence, I think it is important for us to go ahead and
answer these questions. What Im going to be pushing the IC to do is
rather than have a trunk come out here and leg come out there and a tail
come out there, lets just put the whole elephant out there so people
know exactly what they're looking at. Lets examine what is working,
whats not, are there additional protections that can be put in place,
and lets move forward.
And theres no doubt that Mr. Snowdens leaks triggered a much
more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had
simply appointed this review board to go through, and I had sat down with
Congress and we had worked this thing through. It would have been less exciting.
It would not have generated as much press. I actually think we would have
gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk
our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get
intelligence that we need to secure the country.
[Q&A on Federal Reserve chairman omitted.]
Q Thank you, Mr. President.
I wanted to ask you about your evolution on the surveillance issues. I mean,
part of what youre talking about today is restoring the public trust.
And the public has seen you evolve from when you were in the U.S. Senate
to now. And even as recently as June, you said that the process was such
that people should be comfortable with it, and now youre saying
youre making these reforms and people should be comfortable with those.
So why should the public trust you on this issue, and why did you change
your position multiple times?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think its important to say, Carol, first of
all, I havent evolved in my assessment of the actual programs. I
consistently have said that when I came into office I evaluated them. Some
of these programs I had been critical of when I was in the Senate. When I
looked through specifically what was being done, my determination was that
the two programs in particular that had been at issue, 215 and 702, offered
valuable intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they're
worth preserving. What we also saw was that some bolts needed to be tightened
up on some of the programs, so we initiated some additional oversight, reforms,
compliance officers, audits and so forth.
And if you look at the reports -- even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden has
put forward -- all the stories that have been written, what you're not reading
about is the government actually abusing these programs and listening in
on people's phone calls or inappropriately reading people's emails. What
you're hearing about is the prospect that these could be abused. Now, part
of the reason they're not abused is because these checks are in place, and
those abuses would be against the law and would be against the orders of
Having said that, though, if you are outside of the intelligence community,
if you are the ordinary person and you start seeing a bunch of headlines
saying, U.S.-Big Brother looking down on you, collecting telephone records,
et cetera, well, understandably, people would be concerned. I would be, too,
if I wasn't inside the government.
And so in light of the changed environment where a whole set of questions
have been raised, some in the most sensationalized manner possible, where
these leaks are released drip by drip, one a week, to kind of maximize attention
and see if they can catch us at some imprecision on something -- in light
of that, it makes sense for us to go ahead, lay out what exactly we're doing,
have a discussion with Congress, have a discussion with industry -- which
is also impacted by this -- have a discussion with civil libertarians, and
see can we do this better.
I think the main thing I want to emphasize is I don't have an interest and
the people at the NSA don't have an interest in doing anything other than
making sure that where we can prevent a terrorist attack, where we can get
information ahead of time, that we're able to carry out that critical task.
We do not have an interest in doing anything other than that. And we've tried
to set up a system that is as failsafe as so far at least we've been able
to think of to make sure that these programs are not abused.
But people may have better ideas and people may want to jigger slightly sort
of the balance between the information that we can get versus the incremental
encroachments on privacy that if haven't already taken place might take place
in a future administration, or as technologies develop further.
And the other thing thats happening is, is that as technology develops
further, technology itself may provide us some additional safeguards. So,
for example, if people dont have confidence that the law, the checks
and balances of the court and Congress are sufficient to give us confidence
that government is not snooping, well, maybe we can embed technologies in
there that prevent the snooping regardless of what government wants to do.
I mean, there may be some technological fixes that provide another layer
And so those are the kinds of things that Im looking forward to having
a conversation about.
Q Can you understand, though, why some people might not trust what you're
saying right now about wanting to --
THE PRESIDENT: No, I cant.
Q -- that they should be comfortable with the process?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the fact that I said that the programs are operating
in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true, without the reforms.
The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable.
If I tell Michelle that I did the dishes -- now, granted, in the White House
I dont do the dishes that much -- (laughter) -- but back in the day
-- and shes a little skeptical, well, Id like her to trust me,
but maybe I need to bring her back and show her the dishes and not just have
her take my word for it.
And so the program is -- I am comfortable that the program currently is not
being abused. Im comfortable that if the American people examined exactly
what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that
they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing
what they say theyre doing.
But it is absolutely true that with the expansion of technology -- this is
an area thats moving very quickly -- with the revelations that have
depleted public trust, that if there are some additional things that we can
do to build that trust back up, then we should do them.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. You have said that core al Qaeda has been decimated,
that its leaders are on the run. Now that weve seen this terror threat
that has resulted in embassies closed throughout the Arab world, much of
Africa, do you still believe that al Qaeda has been decimated? And if I can
ask in the interest of transparency, can you tell us about these drone strikes
that weve seen over the last couple of weeks in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: What I said in the same National Defense University speech
back in May that I referred to earlier is that core al Qaeda is on its heels,
has been decimated. But what I also said was that al Qaeda and other extremists
have metastasized into regional groups that can pose significant dangers.
And Id refer you back to that speech just back in May where I said
specifically that although they are less likely to be able to carry out
spectacular homeland attacks like 9/11, they have the capacity to go after
our embassies. They have the capacity, potentially, to go after our businesses.
They have the capacity to be destabilizing and disruptive in countries where
the security apparatus is weak. And thats exactly what we are seeing
So its entirely consistent to say that this tightly organized and
relatively centralized al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been broken
apart and is very weak and does not have a lot of operational capacity, and
to say we still have these regional organizations like AQAP that can pose
a threat, that can drive potentially a truck bomb into an embassy wall and
can kill some people.
And so that requires us, then, to make sure that we have a strategy that
is strengthening those partners so that theyve got their own capacity
to deal with what are potentially manageable regional threats if these countries
are a little bit stronger and have more effective CT and so forth. It means
that weve got to continue to be vigilant and go after known terrorists
who are potentially carrying out plots or are going to strengthen their capacity
over time -- because theyre always testing the boundaries of, well,
maybe we can try this, maybe we can do that. So this is a ongoing process.
We are not going to completely eliminate terrorism. What we can do is to
weaken it and to strengthen our partnerships in such a way that it does not
pose the kind of horrible threat that we saw on 9/11.
And Im not going to discuss specific operations that have taken place.
Again, in my speech in May, I was very specific about how we make these
determinations about potential lethal strikes, so I would refer you to that
Q So you wont even confirm that we carried out drone strikes in Yemen?
THE PRESIDENT: I will not have a discussion about operational issues.
Q I hope you would defend me as well.
THE PRESIDENT: I would.
Q Okay, thank you. I want to ask you about two important dates that are coming
up. October 1st youve got to implement your signature health care law.
You recently decided on your own to delay a key part of that. And I wonder,
if you pick and choose what parts of the law to implement, couldnt
your successor down the road pick and choose whether theyll implement
your law and keep it in place?
And on September 11th well have the first anniversary of Benghazi.
And you said on September 12th, Make no mistake, well bring to
justice the killers who attacked our people. Eleven months later, where
are they, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I also said that wed get bin Laden, and I didnt
get him in 11 months. So we have informed, I think, the public that theres
a sealed indictment. Its sealed for a reason. But we are intent on
capturing those who carried out this attack, and were going to stay
on it until we get them.
Q And youre close to having suspects in custody?
THE PRESIDENT: I will leave it at that. But this remains a top priority for
us. Anybody who attacks Americans, anybody who kills, tragically, four Americans
who were serving us in a very dangerous place, were going to do everything
we can to get those who carried out those attacks.
[Q&A on health care and the budget omitted.]
END 4:00 P.M. EDT