NSA Oversight: Obama Wants Safeguards Against Potential Abuse

Jan 17, 2014
Originally published on January 17, 2014 1:39 pm
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And even before Edward Snowden and his leaks made NSA surveillance the subject of dinner table conversations all over American, President Obama said he wanted a debate about the right balance between security and civil liberties. The Snowden revelations made sure that Mr. Obama got one. NPR's Mara Liasson reports on how the political calculus is working at the White House.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The president's new senior advisor, John Podesta, describes what Mr. Obama wants Americans to understand.

JOHN PODESTA: That he has put in place two things. One is a set of reviews and oversight that the debate that he called for, which would be open, that will include Congress of the United States to ensure that the American people can feel like the right balance has been struck has been done with great discipline.

LIASSON: Turning to Congress is not a punt, the White House argues, because next year Congress has to decide whether or not to renew the law that authorizes the surveillance programs. The president knows he can't satisfy everyone. The ACLU, the tech companies, European allies and the intelligence community all have different concerns.

Late last year, Mr. Obama told reporters what he thought had to happen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What is absolutely clear to me is that given the public debate that's taken place and the disclosures that have taken place over the last several months, that this is only going to work if the American people have confidence and trust.

LIASSON: And that means making some changes in the programs he inherited.

OBAMA: We need this intelligence. We can't unilaterally disarm. There are ways we can do it potentially, that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, that there's sufficient oversight, sufficient transparency.

LIASSON: Transparency enough to safeguard against potential abuse, like unwarranted NSA snooping into people's private lives, but also not so transparent that terrorists avoid scrutiny. Peter Feaver, a former Bush and Clinton White House national security staffer, says public opinion won't be much help to the president.

PETER FEAVER: We know that what the public thinks when it feels secure is different from what the public thinks when it feels insecure. So in the immediate aftermath of attacks, the public accepts infringements, not just accepts, demands steps be taken that it feels would be unwarranted at other periods when it feels more secure.

LIASSON: And over the last year or so there's been a noticeable erosion in public support for these surveillance programs. Carroll Doherty is with Pew Research Center.

CARROLL DOHERTY: We've been tracking a question that, you know, pits civil liberties versus protecting against terrorism since 9/11 and we've consistently had majority saying, no, protect the country. And now for the first time you see pluralities at least saying, no, it's more important to not restrict civil liberties.

LIASSON: It's still not a top issue for most voters, but there is a small group that cares intensely about surveillance, and it's not the same red/blue spit you see on almost every other issue in American politics. It cross cuts parties internally, uniting the civil liberties left and the libertarian right, Rand Paul Republicans with the ACLU. Carroll Doherty.

DOHERTY: This is a unusual political alignment. It's conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats who have a lot in common on this issue and they're the ones who are most worried about civil liberties. You know, at a time of polarized politics, you do see this common ground between liberals and conservatives. Both parties are divided almost 50/50 on that civil liberties versus terrorism question.

LIASSON: Because Democrats are divided, the president can afford to anger some of his base, but he does have to worry about young people, a vital constituency and one of those most concerned about surveillance. To them, said one White House official, Mr. Obama now looks like every other president. Peter Feaver says the politics of surveillance are so volatile, it's not easy to find the sweet spot.

FEAVER: The sweet spot shifts. That doesn't mean that you should give the public exactly what it wants when it's feeling most afraid, any more than you should give the public exactly what it wants when it's feeling most complacent. This is really a test for political leadership. What the political leader does is see the bigger picture and explain that bigger picture to a distracted public. That's the challenge for President Obama. And hopefully, that's the challenge he'll meet in this speech.

LIASSON: We'll find out later today whether the president met that challenge. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.