Obama defends Syria policy, plays down NSA spying ‘ruckus’

Olivier Knox
The Ticket
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President Barack Obama promised in an interview broadcast late Monday that his decision to arm Syrian rebels does not mean the United States is “taking sides in a religious war.” Obama, speaking to PBS’s Charlie Rose, also played down the “ruckus” over the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs.

“If you're a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your emails unless it's getting an individualized court order,” Obama said in the exchange, which was recorded before the president left for Europe.

“There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden -- allegedly, since there's a criminal investigation taking place -- and they caused all the ruckus,” he told Rose. It was his only reference by name to Edward Snowden, whom the Guardian has credited with being the source for recent exposés of U.S. surveillance.

Obama acknowledged critics’ warnings that the two programs – one which collects telephone records of millions of Americans, one which can scoop up their Internet communications – have “the enormous potential for abuse.”

“All of that is true -- except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal. We would not be allowed to do that,” Obama insisted. (In an online chat with The Guardian, Snowden basically took the same information but reached the opposite conclusion, arguing that those sorts of limits are meaningless unless coupled with technical safeguards to prevent government analysts from delving into citizens’ private data. “The restrictions against this are policy based, not technically based, and can change at any time," Snowden said.)

Asked about making government surveillance more transparent, Obama replied: "It is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court." But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court renders its rulings in secret, and acts largely as a government rubber stamp -- turning down only a tiny handful of government requests.

White House aides aggressively promoted the interview on social media. It was unclear whether the president would take reporters' questions during his trip to Europe, which came just days after he reversed course on Syria and decided to escalate the U.S. role there by giving direct military aid to rebels.

"We're not taking sides in a religious war" between Islam's Sunni and Shiite factions, Obama underlined. "Really, what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government, and over the long-term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria."

Obama refused to detail what, exactly, the United States will be providing opposition forces trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad. But he rejected calls to set up a no-fly zone or a safe area.

"It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments," he warned.