Obama Pledges Greater Surveillance Transparency

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Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: President Obama tried to calm Americans'fears about surveillance today. The President used a pre-vacation press conference to talk about the NSA programs revealed by leaker Edward Snowden. Obama told reporters that government surveillance programs are still needed to protect Americans. But he also unveiled new measures to make the programs more transparent.

Barack Obama: All these steps are designed to insure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values.

Schachter: Joining us now is David Brown. He's the author of the book "Deep State: Inside the Government's Secrecy Industry." And Mr. Brown, do we trust him? What's your biggest takeaway from the press conference?

David Brown: I would say that the biggest takeaway today is not much is going to change. He said at one point that a lot of this is about reassuring the American people about the programs that are ongoing, and there were a lot of non-specific promises for general types of reforms and oversights, but nothing specific.

Schachter: That oversight board doesn't make things better, you don't think?

Brown: How often do independent reviews in Washington, DC make you feel better? Not often.

Schachter: Okay. The news conference takes place at a time when US embassies in the Middle East have been closed due to security concerns. Obama today made the case that the surveillance program is working. That's an example. Would you agree?

Brown: That the program is working?

Schachter: Yeah, that the fact that the threats were uncovered suggests that the surveillance program is working.

Brown: I'm not entirely convinced that the two are directly related. We have intelligence assets in every corner of the planet. To say that the surveillance program alone is causing this type of thing to happen I would say is an over-generalization.

Schachter: There was a seeming irony today. President Obama had nothing good to say about former NSA employee Edward Snowden, and yet, it would seem at least, the reforms he announced today wouldn't have happened without the information that Snowden leaked.

Brown: Exactly. The President's hand was certainly forced today by Edward Snowden and this is in many ways a promotion of Snowden to the level of whistleblower, I would say. At one point the President did say that, well, if Snowden is comfortable with what he's done, he should come back to the United States and face trial, and that had he gone about this in a more legitimate way he would be protected by the implemented whistleblower protections. Which is interesting because government intelligence community contractors are specifically exempted from protections under the Whistleblower Protection Act. So had Snowden done this legitimately, he still would have gone to jail. And if we want to know how this would have worked out, we can just ask Bradley Manning.

Schachter: Now I want to step back just a moment quickly. Is there a difference between the kind of intelligence gathered domestically and internationally, except, of course, for where the surveillance is taking place? Could an argument be made that they are more linked?

Brown: I'm sure you could make the argument, but what's? The problem that we have is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act would seem to be fairly specific in terms of how to go about surveilling Americans or people on American soil. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court has been very broad in its interpretation of this law. And it's created essentially a sort of a secret law on the books that allows just tremendous latitude by the intelligence community.

Schachter: So do you think the President today satisfied any of his critics, or just stoked the debate?

Brown: I would say that he certainly had to make comment on the issue. That goes without saying. Will he satisfy anyone who actually pays close attention to these sorts of things? I doubt it. Will he reassure the American people that they are not being watched, or they are not having their telephone calls tapped? I'm sure to a certain extent that the President was successful in that. He is a reassuring figure and I would say that he did the right thing by making comment. I would have preferred more specificity, though.

Schachter: Okay. Army veteran David Brown. He also investigates NSA surveillance issues for The Atlantic. He joined us today from WRKF in Baton Rouge. David, thank you for your time.

Brown: Thank you.

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