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Obama Continues To Defend Surveillance


It was a rough political week for President Obama, after a string of revelations about sweeping government surveillance of American telephone records, email and internet activity. Just last night, the president's top intelligence advisor criticized the latest media reports, saying they have mischaracterized the government's data collection programs.

All week, we heard civil liberties groups, and some members of Congress, condemn the programs. Here's Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

JAMEEL JAFFER: One hard question sometimes is where to draw the line, but the problem here is that no line has been drawn at all. The government is collecting everything.

MARTIN: And more fallout may come this week. For more on that, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: So, we heard the director of national intelligence last night in a statement, say that - and I'm reading here: The surveillance activities published in the Guardian and the Washington Post are lawful and conducted under authorities widely known and discussed, and fully debated and authorized by Congress.

So is this over now, Mara? I mean, is this enough to satisfy critics of these programs?

LIASSON: No, it's not. You did get a mixed response from Capitol Hill but this has united the libertarian right and the civil liberties left, even though the bipartisan leadership of Congress has been supportive of this program and so far there's no widespread public outcry about it. But you do see the administration pushing back hard.

DNI Director Clapper actually declassified some of the details about the program in order to defend it, saying that there are procedures to minimize the collection of people in the U.S., that no one is targeted unless they're reasonably believed to be involved in terrorism. And the president making a very strong statement on Friday defending this program, saying you can't have 100 percent security and also 100 percent privacy, and zero inconvenience.

He said no one is listening in to your phone calls, we're just collecting metadata; when you make them, to whom you make them, how long, not the content. But the president also said it's healthy to have this public debate. He wants an open discussion about the balance between privacy and security, and the public has a right to know.

That's certainly what we're going to get. People need to know about this program so they can decide if the tradeoff between liberty and security is worth it. You know, we want the government to know everything about the Tsarnaev brothers, for instance, in advance, but not to collect our phone data.

MARTIN: But will this debate be enough to actually pressure Congress to change anything? I mean, might Congress now move to limit some of the provisions of the Patriot Act?

LIASSON: Well, that's possible. In the past, critics of the Patriot Act - like Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall - have tried and failed to put limits on this program. Actually, back in 2005, Senator Barack Obama supported a measure to limit this program to people whose records are being sought as an agent of a foreign government. That measure failed.

But there could be new moves to make the program more transparent, make it harder to search through data of Americans that have been incidentally or accidentally collected; maybe ending the mass warehousing of this data.

MARTIN: This comes on the heels of a slew of high-profile leaks to the media that the administration has been dealing with. Mara, do we know anything about this particular leak?

LIASSON: Well, the Washington Post says it was a career intelligence officer who was angry and horrified about the potential for abuse of this program, for the intrusion of privacy. This person gave the Post the PowerPoint slides about the program. He's been described as knowing what he was doing and aware of the risks.

MARTIN: Might this intensify the effort to crack down on leaks within the administration?

LIASSON: Well, it's pretty intense already. There have been so many leaks and the administration has been aggressive about cracking down on them. And yes, I think this will intensify the effort.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks so much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.