In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, President Barack Obama discussed his views on China, the elections in Iran, the Syrian civil conflict, and the recent exposure of surveillance programs expanded under his administration.
The president explained his reluctance to heavily arm Syrian rebels by warning, “It’s very easy to slip-side your way into deeper commitments.” That position has upset some American allies, including France and Germany.
“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations [on intervening in Syria], then it’s kind of hard for you to understand that the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war with in the Middle East,” Obama said.
The interview revolved mainly around the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, which allows the federal government to collect a broad range of information from technology and phone companies. The programs have dominated the news since they were leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Since the leak, politicians and citizens have engaged in an ongoing debate on forfeiting privacy in exchange for greater security.
Addressing the conflict that many Americans face between their privacy values and desire for national security, the president compared the “tradeoffs” of surveillance programs to airport security and checkpoints for drunk drivers.
“To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom,” Obama firmly declared.
Defending his stance on surveillance, the president emphasized that there is a “federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program,” and there is also “Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee.”
“It is transparent,” he told Rose, again referencing how Congress and federal courts were aware of the programs before the leaks.
He also stressed that the surveillance programs solely collect metadata, and that the content of phone calls is never revealed. “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,” he stated emphatically.
The president made it clear that even before his presidency, he was never against “intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism,” but was concerned with “setting up a system of checks and balances” to do so.
While acknowledging that since the leak he has faced much criticism from those who once viewed him as a symbol of hope, change, and transparency, he pushed back against the view that his policies are merely a redux of the Bush administration. “Some people say, ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney,’” he said.
Obama insisted that his views have not changed on intelligence gathering and he has not flip-flopped. Rather, the debate concerning such programs has “gotten cloudy.”