Obama Defends NSA Surveillance Program, Says It's 'Transparent'

Obama Defends 'Transparent' NSA Program

President Barack Obama further defended the National Security Agency's collection of phone and other electronic records to PBS' Charlie Rose, calling the program "transparent."

In a pretaped interview set to air Monday evening, Obama gave a forceful defense of the program, saying that the NSA had not unlawfully targeted Americans.

"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 … and have not," Obama said, according to a transcript provided by PBS.

Rose pressed Obama on the point, according to the transcript:

Rose: So I hear you saying, I have no problem with what NSA has been doing.

Obama: Well, let me — let me finish, because I don’t. So, what happens is that the FBI — if, in fact, it now wants to get content; if, in fact, it wants to start tapping that phone — it’s got to go to the FISA court with probable cause and ask for a warrant.

Rose: But has FISA court turned down any request?

Obama: The — because — the — first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small… number one. Number two, folks don’t go with a query unless they’ve got a pretty good suspicion.

Rose: Should this be transparent in some way?

Obama: It is transparent. That’s why we set up the FISA court.

Later in the interview, Obama said the program had "disrupted" terrorist plots in the United States as well as overseas. The president pointed specifically to the prosecution of Najibullah Zazi, who was arrested in 2009 as part of a plan to bomb the New York City subway system.

"Now, we might have caught him some other way. We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he was suspicious," Obama said. "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."

While Zazi's name has come up frequently in defense of the NSA, the Associated Press and others have thrown cold water on the talking point, stating that the email the NSA says led to the plot's disruption could have been intercepted without the PRISM program.

Obama struck a similar tone during a June 7 speech in San Jose, Calif., saying that Congress has been briefed on the programs' details.

"The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified. They are not secret, in that every member of Congress has been briefed," he said. "These are programs that have been authored by large bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006."

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough also stood by the program on Sunday during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," insisting that Obama "does not" have privacy concerns related to the NSA's phone records collection.

"The president is not saying, 'Trust me,'" he said. "The president is saying, 'I want every member of Congress, on whose authority we are running this program, to be briefed on it, to come to the administration with questions and to also be accountable for it.'"

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

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