President Obama says that when it comes to deciding on the wisdom of the government’s vast data-mining operations, “I welcome this debate.” What he did not say is that we could not have such a debate unless journalists reported on leaks of classified information. The executive branch’s Plan A was to do all this in secret and never debate it.
Here is a transcript of his remarks Friday on the subject. Taken as a whole, it is quite thoughtful, nuanced, and worth considering. But it is based on a fundamentally misleading premise (which I have highlighted in bold).
Obama’s Remarks on Health Care and Surveillance
The following is a [partial — cbd] transcript of President Obama’s remarks about the health care overhaul and response to a question about electronic surveillance in San Jose, Calif., as provided by the White House:
QUESTION: Mr. President?
MR. OBAMA: I’m going to take one question. And then, remember, people are going to have opportunities to also — answer questions when I’m with the Chinese President today. So I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference. But I’m going to take Jackie Calmes’ question.
QUESTION: Mr. President, could you please react to the reports of secret government surveillance of phones and Internet? And can you also assure Americans that the government — your government doesn’t have some massive secret database of all their personal online information and activities?
MR. OBAMA: Yes. When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I made: Number one, to keep the American people safe; and number two, to uphold the Constitution. And that includes what I consider to be a constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.
Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified. But they’re not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006.
And so, I think at the outset, it’s important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing. Now, let me take the two issues separately.
When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks — if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they’ve got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
So I want to be very clear — some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so — nobody is listening to the content of people’s phone calls. This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA Court — a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them, and that it’s being carried out consistent with the Constitution and rule of law.
And so, not only does that court authorize the initial gathering of data, but — I want to repeat — if anybody in government wanted to go further than just that top-line data and want to, for example, listen to Jackie Calmes’ phone call, they would have to go back to a federal judge and indicate why, in fact, they were doing further probing.
Now, with respect to the Internet and emails — this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States. And again, in this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA Court has to authorize it.
So in summary, what you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress, bipartisan majorities have approved on them, Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved, and federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout. We’re also setting up — we’ve also set up an audit process, when I came into office, to make sure that we’re, after the fact, making absolutely certain that all the safeguards are being properly observed.
Now, having said all that, you’ll remember when I made that speech a couple of weeks ago about the need for us to shift out of a perpetual war mindset, I specifically said that one of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved.
I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate. And I think it’s interesting that there are some folks on the left but also some folks on the right who are now worried about it who weren’t very worried about it when there was a Republican President. I think that’s good that we’re having this discussion.
But I think it’s important for everybody to understand — and I think the American people understand — that there are some tradeoffs involved. I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of safeguards. But my assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on the privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment on that.
But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity. And the fact that they’re under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and that they do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation — I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.
But, again, these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up. And we’re happy to have that debate.
Okay? All right. And we’ll have a chance to talk further over the course of the next couple of days.
QUESTION: Do you welcome the leaks, sir? Do you welcome the leaks? Do you welcome the debate?
MR. OBAMA: I don’t welcome leaks, because there’s a reason why these programs are classified. I think that there is a suggestion that somehow any classified program is a “secret” program, which means it’s somehow suspicious.
The fact of the matter is in our modern history, there are a whole range of programs that have been classified because — when it comes to, for example, fighting terror, our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm. And if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified.
But that’s also why we set up congressional oversight. These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they’re being fully briefed on these programs. And if, in fact, there was — there were abuses taking place, presumably those members of Congress could raise those issues very aggressively. They’re empowered to do so.
We also have federal judges that we put in place who are not subject to political pressure. They’ve got lifetime tenure as federal judges, and they’re empowered to look over our shoulder at the executive branch to make sure that these programs aren’t being abused.
So we have a system in which some information is classified, and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure that it’s not abused. And if, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved — in some cases, on other leaks, risks to personnel in a very dangerous situation — then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people.
That’s not to suggest that you just say, trust me; we’re doing the right thing; we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.
But my observation is, is that the people who are involved in America’s national security, they take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution. The last thing they’d be doing is taking programs like this to listen to somebody’s phone calls.
And by the way, with respect to my concerns about privacy issues, I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the last — next three and a half years, and after that, I will be a private citizen. And I suspect that, on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.
But I know that the people who are involved in these programs, they operate like professionals. And these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They’re very focused. And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amuck, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance.
Thank you very much, guys.