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Obama: NSA secret data gathering 'transparent'

By Kimberly Dozier

AP Intelligence Writer

LAST UPDATED: 09:57 a.m. HST, Jun 18, 2013

WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama defended top secret National Security Agency spying programs as legal in a lengthy interview Monday, and called them transparent — even though they are authorized in secret.

"It is transparent," Obama told PBS's Charlie Rose in an interview to be broadcast today. "That's why we set up the FISA court," he added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.

The location of FISA courts is secret. The sessions are closed. The orders that result from hearings in which only government lawyers are present are classified.

"We're going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place ... that their phone calls aren't being listened into; their text messages aren't being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere," Obama said.

Obama is in Northern Ireland for a meeting of leaders of allied countries. As Obama arrived, the latest series of Guardian articles drawing on the leaks claims that British eavesdropping agency GCHQ repeatedly hacked into foreign diplomats' phones and emails with U.S. help, in an effort to get an edge in such high-stakes negotiations.

Obama's announcement follows an online chat Monday by Edward Snowden, the man who leaked documents revealing the scope of the two programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers. He accused members of Congress and administration officials of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009.

Snowden said Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs — a point Obama conceded in his interview without mentioning Snowden.

"We might have caught him some other way," Obama said. "We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn't go off. But at the margins we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs," he said.

Obama also told Rose he wanted to encourage a national debate on the balance between privacy and national security — a topic renewed by Snowden's disclosures.

Obama, who repeated earlier assertions that the programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely noninvasive to people with no terror ties, said he has created a privacy and civil liberties oversight board.

"I'll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities," he said.

Congressional leaders have said Snowden's disclosures have led terrorists to change their behavior, which may make them harder to stop — a charge Snowden discounted as an effort to silence him.

"The U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said. He added the government "immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home," by labeling him a traitor, and indicated he would not return to the U.S. voluntarily.

Congressional leaders have accused Snowden of treason for revealing once-secret surveillance programs two weeks ago in the Guardian and The Washington Post. The National Security Agency programs collect records of millions of Americans' telephone calls and Internet usage as a counterterror tool. The disclosures revealed the scope of the collections, which surprised many Americans and have sparked debate about how much privacy the government can take away in the name of national security.

"It would be foolish to volunteer yourself to" possible arrest and criminal charges "if you can do more good outside of prison than in it," he said.

Snowden dismissed being called a traitor by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the allegations in an interview this week on Fox News Sunday. Cheney was echoing the comments of both Democrats and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, including Senate Intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.

"Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein ... the better off we all are," Snowden said.

The Guardian announced that its website was hosting an online chat with Snowden, in hiding in Hong Kong, with reporter Glenn Greenwald receiving and posting his questions. The Associated Press couldn't independently verify that Snowden was the man who posted 19 replies to questions.

In answer to the question of whether he fled to Hong Kong because he was spying for China, Snowden wrote, "Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now."

He added later, "I have had no contact with the Chinese government."

Snowden was working as a systems analyst contractor for NSA at the time he had access to the then-secret programs. He defended his actions and said he considered what to reveal and what not to, saying he did not reveal any U.S. operations against what he called legitimate military targets, but instead showed that the NSA is hacking civilian infrastructure like universities and private businesses.

"These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a technical mistake during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash," he said, though he gave no examples of what systems have crashed or in which countries.

"Congress hasn't declared war on the countries — the majority of them are our allies — but without asking for public permission, NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people," he said. "And for what? So we can have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting?"

Snowden was referring to Prism, one of the programs he disclosed. The program sweeps up Internet usage data from all over the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based Internet providers. The NSA can look at foreign usage without any warrants, and says the program doesn't target Americans.

U.S. officials say the data-gathering programs are legal and operated under secret court supervision.

Snowden explained his claim that from his desk, he could "wiretap" any phone call or email — a claim top intelligence officials have denied. "If an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc. analyst has access to query raw SIGINT (signals intelligence) databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want," he wrote in the answer posted on the Guardian site. "Phone number, email, user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on — it's all the same."

The NSA did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said that the kind of data that can be accessed and who can access it is severely limited.


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Hapa_Haole_Boy wrote:
This guy is being exposed for what he really is-- someone trying to make a big fuss over something that is a nonstory, that he doesn't entirely understand, nor has access to. If he had all of this top secret information/data that he says he has or has had access to, then he would have disclosed it by now. The data-gathering tools and procedures used by the govt do not pinpoint anyone specifically, until and unless a credible threat is identified. The W S J had several articles explaining as much. This guy is just out for attention, crying wolf over something that is otherwise not the kind of problem he makes it out to be, and is instead an invaluable tool in our fight against terrorism. Said W S J article outlined how these tools help identify a correlation between price volatility in produce markets in Iraq and subsequent terror attacks in the same town-- a rise in price volatility would lead to, within a statistically significant certainty, a bombing or other such terror episode in the town within days later. This tool has the ability to save, and has in fact saved, lives. Snowden should be ashamed of himself and jump off a cliff.
on June 17,2013 | 03:50PM
RichardCory wrote:
Bold statements coming from someone who fails to provide sources.
on June 17,2013 | 04:35PM
pcman wrote:
IRT Hapa on big fuss. Agree that the media has blown this incident into a big disaster when CBS has been reporting on the NSA facility and its implications for the past year, twice in fact, on their '60 Minutes' show, Snowden knows as much as 60 Minutes knew, so what's the beef? If anyone is worried about what they say on phone or emails, then don't say it. The social media already has all the information you have given voluntarily. An information analyst who wants to know anything about you doesn't have to go through FISA, but just go to Google or any other search engine. Snowden is a blowhard that thinks he is God's gift to save America. Give me a break! The only thing he is leaking is being flushed down the toilet. Why China hasn't recruited him? They have but he doesn't know that he is bugged and all his interviewers are being debriefed by the Chinese after each interview The Chinese are not stupid to latch on to Snowden who has not revealed anything more than what they already knew. They don't need sources to prove idiocy.
on June 18,2013 | 05:47AM
kuroiwaj wrote:
Nice college try Hapa_Haole_Boy. Like you, I have been following this NSA development. At one time, I held a secret clearance and do understand the process. Mr. Snowden is an American hero. Try see If you can assist him. For after he reviewed all this secret data and knew the Feds had overstepped their legal trust, what do you suggest he should have done? We now know that the Feds broke the laws. We know the Feds would like to have a 9mm round between his eyes. We also know that the "secret" NSA prepared the requests to the "secret" FISA Court, and the FISA Court approval was in a "secret" form to spy on all American's. Many of the top Feds who should have been informed were not and many top Feds express surprise on how the secret NSA operated. We also know of more effective ways to hunt down terrorists than this current NSA system. We also know that the Feds are building a multi-billion $ facility in Utah to store data about Americans, you and me illegally. Every day new information is being made public and it's not nice. You know that the approvals must have reached the President, and when documents with his signature are made public, we must be prepared to re-invent the United States. Freedom and Liberty remains the end result for the success of the United States. No, Mr. Snowden should be cleared and debriefed on all that he knows in a friendly and American way. Any other way will not be pono.
on June 17,2013 | 04:47PM
HD36 wrote:
Who's more dangerous to America: The guy who tells the truth or the guy who's spending $100 million on his Africa vacation with 12 limos, aircraft, etc. ; who fly's his barber from Chicago to cut his hair every 10-14 days at our expense; and who pays his dog handler $100k a year to feed the dog; and has a 7 day 24 hr projectionist, paid by the taxpayer because they don't want the indignity of putting in a dvd?
on June 17,2013 | 09:46PM
gari wrote:
Is this meta data stuff used only to catch terrorist ? or is it sometimes used to catch murders too ... missing kids .?..if some of these other things are yes ...then how do you control it ."under the guise of being helpful "
on June 17,2013 | 04:29PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
The FISA court members are appointed by the Supreme Court. They do their work hearing only one side of the subject - the request by the gov't for surveillance. They operate without opportunity for review of decision or right of protest.

That is not transparent.

on June 17,2013 | 09:06PM
jussayin wrote:
There are many secrets kept by the federal government and let's say interesting versions of events that are given to the public. And if you work within the government, you have to watch yourself if you say the truth when things are wrong. This includes briefing your superiors who will deem you as a troublemaker and possible 'enemy' within the organization. Obama keeps saying transparency in government. Yeah right.
on June 17,2013 | 09:39PM
Oahuan2 wrote:
Our president is getting to be as bad as our vice president for making really stupid remarks. Oy! Transparent spying? The government needs to back off Snowden. Me thinks they all protest too much.
on June 18,2013 | 03:22AM
peanutgallery wrote:
and a chicken's got lips.
on June 18,2013 | 04:20AM
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