Barack Obama and Edward Snowden mount PR offensives over NSA spying
President defends 'limited' surveillance programme, but whistle-blower maintains almost anyone's phone or e-mails can be targeted by agent
US President Barack Obama and former national security contractor Edward Snowden are mounting public relations campaigns over a classified US surveillance programme leaked by the latter. Obama promised to declassify details, while Snowden sought vindication of his motives.
Snowden, who fled last month from his job at a National Security Agency base in Hawaii to Hong Kong - carrying with him a cache of secret documents - on Monday sought to rally support for his cause in a public online question-and-answer session.
That came as Obama pushed back, in a lengthy TV interview, against charges that he had merely continued with the surveillance policies that ex-president George W. Bush and former vice-president Dick Cheney brought in after the September 11, 2001 attacks. It also came as US spy agencies disclosed for the first time a list of terrorist attacks they say were thwarted by the NSA's once-secret surveillance operations.
NSA director General Keith Alexander told lawmakers yesterday that his agency's surveillance efforts had had foiled over 50 potential terrorist events since the attacks of September 9, 2001.
"These programmes are immensely valuable for protecting our nation and securing the security of our allies," Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee, adding that further details would be disclosed to lawmakers.
"In recent years the information gathered from these programs provided the US government with critical leads to help prevent over 50 potential terrorist events in more than 20 countries around the world."
Alexander said that "at least 10 of these events included homeland-based threats".
He said that details of four incidents were being made public, including plots to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and the subway system in New York.
On the Charlie Rose show on PBS television, Obama said: "What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your e-mails. On this telephone programme, you've got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire programme."
Since Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong, he has released details of several US snooping programmes, including claims made to the South China Morning Post that the US government had been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland for years. In the latest, he embarrassed the British government on the eve of the G8 meeting when The Guardian revealed British spies had bugged leaders at a previous Group of 20 summit.
Obama defended the top-secret spying programmes as legal and transparent and gave a detailed explanation of how two of them work.
The 2015 Programme authorises the US government to collect telephone metadata about phone numbers, lengths of calls and when they took place, Obama said. "There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place - so that database is sitting there."
The FBI would then need to seek authorisation through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court in order to search the database, he said.
The 702 Programme is designed to track the use of US-based internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism, weapons proliferation and computer hacking.
"Those - and the process has all been approved by the courts - you can send to providers, the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you," Obama said.
"And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you there can obtain content."
Snowden, whose leaked documents opened a debate about the balance between intrusive government surveillance and security, does not regard himself as having committed a crime; he sees himself as the person exposing alleged criminality on the part of the Obama administration.
In the question-and-answer session from a secret location in Hong Kong, Snowden, 29, emphatically denied speculation he had cut a deal with the Beijing giving it classified documents in exchange for being provided with an eventual safe haven.
He also repeated his claim that almost any analyst with access to the NSA database could target almost anyone's e-mails or phone metadata and that warrants were rarely audited.
Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian