President Obama does not believe his administration has violated the privacy of any American in light of leaked documents detailing sweeping government surveillance programs, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday on "Face the Nation," and he plans to make clear that sentiment "in the days ahead."
Claims from Edward Snowden - the former National Security Agency computer technician who leaked top-secret documents detailing the surveillance reach - that he, sitting at his desk, had the authorities to wiretap anyone, "from you or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the president if I had a personal email" are "incorrect" and will be adjudicated over time, McDonough said.
McDonough would not say, however, that the government is entirely in the right in its collection of phone records and mining of data from the servers of nine major Internet companies: "If there's problems, we're gonna get to the bottom of them," he said. "We do have to find the right balance, especially in this new situation when we find ourselves, with all of us reliant on Internet, on email, on texting. So we find ourselves communicating in different ways - but that means the bad guys are doing that as well.
Keeping in mind that the programs were designed to track movement and communication of suspected terrorists, McDonough went on, "the president recognizes more than anybody that he has a fundamental obligation to the American people, and that's to keep them safe. But he also swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. He believes that we can do both, he believes that we are doing both, and he's proud of the work that we've been able to undertake to do that."
Mr. Obama is not simply telling Americans, "trust me," McDonough d, tossing to the famous Reagan doctrine, "trust but verify;" "the president is saying, 'I want every member of Congress, on whose authority we are running this program, to understand it, to be briefed on it, and to be comfortable with it.'"
Having entered office in 2009 "pretty skeptical" about the importance and reach of federal surveillance programs, Mr. Obama "changed many things," and in 2009 and 2011 presented a "classified white paper" of the programs to all 535 U.S. lawmakers, so "at the end of the day," McDonough continued, "it was bipartisan majorities that enacted these." McDonough also pointed to oversight of the programs by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court, as well as independent audits.
Indeed, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. - chairman of the House Intelligence Committee - agreed later on the program: The NSA programs are "legal" and "comport with the Constitution." But it's the "pattern of deception" coming out of "scandals" like Benghazi and the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records, he argued, that "made it very, very difficult to explain" why the surveillance programs were different.
On Saturday, two top intelligence officials reported that the NSA data collection had successfully thwarted potential terrorist plots in the United States and more than 20 other countries. Rogers explained the way the terrorist-tracking works without violating civil liberties:
"We take the business records by a court order, and it's just phone numbers - no names, no addresses - put it in a lock box," Rogers said. "And if they get a foreign terrorist overseas that's dialing in to the United Sates, they take that phone number... they plug it into this big pile, if you will, of just phone numbers - it's like a phonebook without any names and any addresses with it - to see if there's a connection, a foreign terrorist connection to the United States.
"When a number comes out of that lock box," he continued, "it's just a phone number - no names, no addresses. If they think that's relevant to their counterterrorism investigation, they give that to the FBI. Then upon the FBI has to go out and meet all the legal standards to even get whose phone number that is."