President Obama has had difficulty finding his footing and has been late to the game in defending federal intelligence surveillance programs as a valuable weapon for thwarting terrorist plots, national security analysts say.
When Mr. Obama appeared on TV with PBS interviewer Charlie Rose Monday night, it was his first high-profile comment on the secret phone and Internet surveillance since the story broke on June 5, nearly two weeks earlier. And even then, the president’s remarks were seen even by supporters of the programs as muddled.
For example, the president told Mr. Rose that the surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency (NSA) were “transparent” because they are overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court. But the court itself is secret, with the public barred from learning any details of its operation, its location, or the orders issued by its judges.
“The Charlie Rose show was a good tactical choice in terms of setting, but the case made so far doesn’t seem to be persuading folks,” said Peter Singer, a national security specialist at the left-leaning Brookings Institution. “What he is battling is not just a facts-based argument but a lost-trust issue that is far harder to turn around.”
As Mr. Obama himself said on the show, “This debate has gotten cloudy very quickly.”
Some lawmakers, especially those on the House and Senate intelligence committees, have been adamant about the value of the surveillance programs in foiling terrorist plots. Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, criticized Mr. Obama on Thursday for not emphasizing the worth of the programs.
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“I’m a little surprised that the White House hasn’t stood up and made clear on an ongoing basis over this last week just how important these programs are,” he said. “For those of us who have been briefed on these programs, we’re aware how much safety they’ve brought us. And we’re also aware of many examples where they’ve helped us eliminate terrorist threats.”
More often, Mr. Obama, a former lecturer on constitutional law, has spoken about oversight of the programs and of striking the right “balance” between security and privacy.
It was only in response to Mr. Rose’s 13th question about the NSA and anti-terrorism tactics, when the interviewer compared Mr. Obama’s policies with those of the Bush-Cheney administration, that the president defended the surveillance as helping to protect Americans and rejected comparisons to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The one thing people should understand about all these programs though is they have disrupted plots,” Mr. Obama said. “Not just here in the United States but overseas as well.”
Then he added that the surveillance has helped “at the margins” to protect the U.S.
When the story about widespread NSA surveillance leaked out on June 5, the White House’s reaction was muted. The administration’s first official to comment on the record came from deputy White House press secretary Joshua Earnest, who said a day later that the surveillance was “a critical tool in protecting the nation from terror threats.”
On June 7, Mr. Obama addressed the revelations for the first time at an impromptu morning press conference in California, saying the programs “help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
“They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity,” he said.
Jim Breckenridge, executive director of the Institute for Intelligence Studies at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa., said the president could have done a better job educating the public about broad aspects of the surveillance long before disillusioned NSA contractor Edward Snowden fed the details to the media.
“Leaders, part of their job is to educate and inform,” said Mr. Breckenridge, a retired Army officer who worked in the intelligence community. “There’s a vehicle to do that. I think this administration’s been rather reluctant to get out there and talk about the war on terror and what it means for Americans, educating the population so what when these sorts of things are divulged, there’s context.”
Mr. Obama said he has named representatives to a privacy and civil liberties oversight board to help determine how far the government should go in collecting data.
“We’re going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place … that their phone calls aren’t being listened into; their text messages aren’t being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere,” the president said.
Mr. Obama reportedly has asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to determine how much more information about the programs could be made public because, as the president said, Americans are “not getting the complete story.”