After Slow Start, Obama Administration Finds its Voice on Surveillance

After a stunned, fumbling response to Edward Snowden's leaks, a clearer defense of NSA and FBI programs.

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Charles Dharapak / AP

Gen. Keith B. Alexander, director of the National Security Agency testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence regarding NSA surveillance in Washington, June 18, 2013.

After a week of mostly ad hoc, often cryptic and generally ineffectual responses to leaked details about its anti-terror surveillance programs, the Obama administration has finally begun articulating a clearer defense of those programs. It amounts to a two pronged-message: The snooping isn’t as bad as it sounds, and your civil liberties are scrupulously protected.

President Obama kicked off the counteroffensive in a Monday night interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose. The president–who’d been criticized last week for not more directly defending his surveillance policies in the wake of Edward Snowden‘s bombshell leaks–insisted that he wrestles with the balance between national security and civil liberties. And at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon, top intelligence and law enforcement officials testified that their snooping has prevented specific terror attacks, and refuted some important misconceptions about their covert work.

Speaking with Charlie Rose, Obama portrayed himself–as he did in his recent address on his drone and detention policies–as copiously working to strike a balance. “[W]e don’t have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That’s a false choice,” Obama told Rose. “And so every program that we engage in, what I’ve said is, ‘Let’s examine and make sure that we’re making the right tradeoffs.'” Obama also clarified key points that may be lost on people who only follow the surveillance debate casually–namely that “if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails,” as he put it.

A longtime critic of fear-mongering about terrorism, Obama was tonally measured about the threat. (Where George W. Bush liked to refer to “the evildoers,” Obama told Rose about “folks who are trying to do us harm.”) But real and present danger was the thrust at the House hearing, where a crew of top officials–including NSA chief Keith Alexander and deputy FBI director Sean Joyce–said that U.S. surveillance had prevented more than 50 terror plots since 9/11, including at least 10 “homeland-based threats.” Among those were two cases the officials discussed publicly for the first time: a foiled plan to bomb the New York Stock Exchange and the arrest of a San Diego man planning to send financial support to an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Somalia.

The officials also presented a detailed litany about the legal restrictions and judicial and congressional oversight limiting their surveillance activities. They also clarified a commonly misunderstood point, namely that the government’s collection of phone records does not include the location from which cell phone calls are made. And Alexander refuted one of the most sensational claims made by the fugitive leaker Edward Snowden. “Does the technology exist for any individual…at the NSA to flip a switch, to listen to Americans’ phone calls or read their emails,” the committee chairman, Mike Rogers, asked Alexander. “No,” replied the NSA chief.

The hearing won’t satisfy critics of the surveillance programs, who contend they are subject to abuse or to looser parameters under future presidents. Nor did the officials present many details about the dozens of terrorist plots they claim to have stopped with their programs, and whether they could have been disrupted through more conventional means, or if their surveillance powers were even more closely restricted. But the officials won a sympathetic hearing from a House committee whose members lack the expertise of their Senate counterparts with a clarity that was often on painful display. (One of the never-fulfilled reforms proposed by the 2004 9/11 Commission was to combine the House and Senate Intelligence Committees into a single, relatively small, high-expertise joint panel.) That sympathy, and the ability to coherently defend the programs, was surely a goal Rogers, a former FBI agent who left no doubt about own sympathies. “It is at times like these where our enemies within become almost as damaging as our enemies on the outside,” Rogers said.

That’s a few notches harsher than Obama’s official line on the Snowden leaks. But it also serves the purpose of an administration, initially caught completely off-guard by the explosive return of the surveillance debate, that is figuring out how to explain itself. It remains to be seen which side a still-divided public will ultimately take.