Obama: NSA secret data gathering "transparent"

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama defended top secret National Security Agency spying programs as legal in a lengthy

interview Monday, and called them transparent — even though they are authorized in secret.

"It is transparent," Obama told PBS's

Charlie Rose in an interview to be broadcast Monday. "That's why we set

up the FISA

court," he added, referring to the secret court set up by the

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently

disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and

another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet

servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.

The location of FISA courts is secret. The sessions are closed. The orders that result from hearings in which only government

lawyers are present are classified.

"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," Obama said.

Obama is in Northern Ireland for a meeting

of leaders of allied countries. As Obama arrived, the latest series of


articles drawing on the leaks claims that British eavesdropping

agency GCHQ repeatedly hacked into foreign diplomats' phones

and emails with U.S. help, in an effort to get an edge in such

high-stakes negotiations.

Obama's announcement follows an online chat

Monday by Edward Snowden, the man who leaked documents revealing the

scope of

the two programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post

newspapers. He accused members of Congress and administration officials

of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data

gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of would-be

New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009.

Snowden said Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs — a point Obama conceded in his Monday

interview without mentioning Snowden.

"We might have caught him some other way,"

Obama said. "We might have disrupted it because a New York cop saw he

was suspicious.

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," he said.

Obama also told Rose he wanted to encourage a national debate on the balance between privacy and national security — a topic

renewed by Snowden's disclosures.

Obama, who repeated earlier assertions that the programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely

noninvasive to people with no terror ties, said he has created a privacy and civil liberties oversight board.

"I'll be meeting with them. And what I want

to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about


two programs, but also the general problem of data, big data sets,

because this is not going to be restricted to government

entities," he said.

Congressional leaders have said Snowden's disclosures have led terrorists to change their behavior, which may make them harder

to stop — a charge Snowden discounted as an effort to silence him.

"The U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said. He added the government

"immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home," by labeling him a traitor, and indicated

he would not return to the U.S. voluntarily.

Congressional leaders have accused Snowden

of treason for revealing once-secret surveillance programs two weeks ago

in the

Guardian and The Washington Post. The National Security Agency

programs collect records of millions of Americans' telephone

calls and Internet usage as a counterterror tool. The disclosures

revealed the scope of the collections, which surprised many

Americans and have sparked debate about how much privacy the

government can take away in the name of national security.

"It would be foolish to volunteer yourself to" possible arrest and criminal charges "if you can do more good outside of prison

than in it," he said.

Snowden dismissed being called a traitor by

former Vice President Dick Cheney, who made the allegations in an

interview this

week on Fox News Sunday. Cheney was echoing the comments of both

Democrats and Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, including

Senate Intelligence committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein.

"Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from

people like him, Feinstein ... the better off we all are," Snowden said.

The Guardian announced that its website was hosting an online chat with Snowden, in hiding in Hong Kong, with reporter Glenn

Greenwald receiving and posting his questions. The Associated Press couldn't independently verify that Snowden was the man

who posted 19 replies to questions.

In answer to the question of whether he fled to Hong Kong because he was spying for China, Snowden wrote, "Ask yourself: if

I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn't I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by


He added later, "I have had no contact with the Chinese government."

Snowden was working as a systems analyst

contractor for NSA at the time he had access to the then-secret

programs. He defended

his actions and said he considered what to reveal and what not to,

saying he did not reveal any U.S. operations against what

he called legitimate military targets, but instead showed that the

NSA is hacking civilian infrastructure like universities

and private businesses.

"These nakedly, aggressively criminal acts

are wrong no matter the target. Not only that, when NSA makes a

technical mistake

during an exploitation operation, critical systems crash," he

said, though he gave no examples of what systems have crashed

or in which countries.

"Congress hasn't declared war on the countries — the majority of them are our allies — but without asking for public permission,

NSA is running network operations against them that affect millions of innocent people," he said. "And for what? So we can

have secret access to a computer in a country we're not even fighting?"

Snowden was referring to Prism, one of the

programs he disclosed. The program sweeps up Internet usage data from

all over

the world that goes through nine major U.S.-based Internet

providers. The NSA can look at foreign usage without any warrants,

and says the program doesn't target Americans.

U.S. officials say the data-gathering programs are legal and operated under secret court supervision.

Snowden explained his claim that from his

desk, he could "wiretap" any phone call or email — a claim top

intelligence officials

have denied. "If an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc. analyst has access to

query raw SIGINT (signals intelligence) databases, they

can enter and get results for anything they want," he wrote in the

answer posted on the Guardian site. "Phone number, email,

user id, cell phone handset id (IMEI), and so on — it's all the


The NSA did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. But Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has said

that the kind of data that can be accessed and who can access it is severely limited.