President Barack Obama, in his first extended remarks since the disclosure of two National Security Agency programs that critics say invade the privacy of Americans, strongly defended his anti-terrorism policies and rejected comparisons to President George W. Bush.
"The whole point of my concern, before I was president — because some people say, "Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney." Dick Cheney sometimes says, "Yeah, you know? He took it all, lock, stock, and barrel," the president said in an interview with PBS.
"My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances? So, on this telephone program, you've got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program. And you've got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last re-authorization exactly how this program works."
He added, "What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails."
Since leaks of the programs in stories in the Washington Post and the Guardian, President Obama has resisted any calls to changes to them and rejected the notion they violate civil liberties.
But his comments and decision to do the interview illustrate the president is aware of the on-going debate about these anti-terrorism programs and how it shapes perceptions of him, particularly on the political left, where the president is now facing strong criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against the program that allows the U.S. government to collect data from phone companies.
(Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr.)