Fact check: Obama’s press conference on NSA spying programs

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On August 9, U.S. President Barack Obama held a press conference to announce four reforms related to intelligence programs used to surveil foreign targets. Those programs were made public in June by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, who received material detailing various surveillance programs used by the NSA from a former government contractor named Edward Snowden.

What follows are excerpts of Obama’s remarks made on Friday in relation to the NSA programs along with research that supports or contradicts his statements.

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President Obama: “Keep in mind that as a senator, I expressed a healthy skepticism about these (surveillance) programs. And as president, I’ve taken steps to make sure that they have strong oversight by all three branches of government and clear safeguards to prevent abuses and protect the rights of the American people.”

Fact: As a senator, Obama did indeed press for reforms to government surveillance programs. Obama sought to limit the bulk collection of telephone records, limit the use of gag orders by the government with regards to surveillance orders, and declassify court opinions regarding surveillance with appropriate redactions for matters of homeland security.

President Obama, however, has increased electronic surveillance and the intelligence community under his watch continues to enjoy the use of government gag orders and classified court opinions.

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U.S. President Barack Obama attends a National Security Council meeting. (White House: Pete Souza)

U.S. President Barack Obama attends a National Security Council meeting. (White House: Pete Souza)

Obama: “I will work with Congress to pursue appropriate reforms to Section 214 of the Patriot Act, the program that collects telephone records.”

Fact: Though Obama did not specify what those “appropriate reforms” are, the Los Angeles Times says one idea on the table reduces “the length of time the records are held.” Currently, telephone metadata records are held for five years. Obama did not indicate in his remarks on Friday that any collection tactics would change.

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Obama: “After having a dialogue with members of Congress and civil libertarians, I believe that there are steps we can take to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse. For instance, we can take steps to put in place greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints on the use of this authority.”

Fact: Obama did not say at his press conference what those “greater steps” would be, nor did he say how he or Congress could put in place “greater oversight, greater transparency and constraints” on how electronic surveillance is gathered and stored by the National Security Administration and other agencies.

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Obama: “I’ve got confidence in the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) court, and I think they’ve done a fine job.”

Fact: Obama expressed confidence in a federal court that has rejected less than one percent of all government surveillance requests. In 33 years, the FISC has rejected only 11 of the 33,900 surveillance requests made by the government, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Obama: “We can and must be more transparent. So I’ve directed the intelligence community to make public as much information about these programs as possible.”

Congressman Alan Grayson. (Photo: Grayson for Congress)

Congressman Alan Grayson. (Photo: Grayson for Congress)

Fact: Though the Guardian and other news outlets have made them public, the National Security Administration still refuses to make available a slideshow detailing how the agency uses PRISM as well as other documents related to domestic and foreign spying programs. Even members of Congress, who should have greater access to information about these programs, have found difficulty in discussing them with their colleagues.

Hoping to provoke a conversation on the matter, Congressman Alan Grayson had staff members distribute several slides related to the PRISM program on the floor of the House of Representatives. Though they had been published, the House Intelligence Committee told Grayson to stop distributing them or else he would face sanctions.

Grayson is not alone. Many other members of Congress say they are in the dark regarding PRISM and other foreign surveillance programs. The intelligence community has failed to be transparent with its practices when it comes to elected officials in Washington; one has to wonder how transparent they will be with the public.

Following Obama’s press conference on Friday, the Obama Administration released a White Paper that shed light on the government’s claim that telephone record collecting by the NSA as part of broader surveillance efforts was legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

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Obama: “We’ve now had to unravel terrorist plots by finding a needle in a haystack of global telecommunications, and meanwhile technology has given government, including our own, unprecedented capability to monitor communications.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. (Photo: ODNI handout)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. (Photo: ODNI handout)

Fact: Officials in Washington say anywhere from four to 50 terror plots were disrupted thanks to domestic and foreign electronic spying programs like PRISM. But officials have only elaborated on two: A 2009 plot to detonate bombs in New York City (debunked by public documents) and a plot to blow up a Danish newspaper over a cartoon (intelligence officials have not elaborated on this claim).

The full list of terror plots foiled by electronic surveillance programs was given to the House Intelligence Committee for the first tine in June 2013. It was not, and likely will not, be released publicly (which isn’t very transparent).

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Obama: “America is not interested in spying on ordinary people.”

Fact: The Guardian disclosed on Friday that the National Security Agency has “secret backdoor permission” to search records of emails and phone calls of ordinary American citizens. The NSA can locate emails, phone records and other information using just the name of an ordinary American citizen.

The permission was authorized in 2011 by President Obama, who told reporters on Friday that the U.S. “is not interested in spying on ordinary people.”

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Obama: “I called for a thorough review of our surveillance operations before Mr. Snowden made the leaks.”

The Supreme Court of the United States. (Flickr: dbking)

The Supreme Court of the United States. (Flickr: dbking)

Fact: There’s no record that Obama asked for a review of surveillance operations before Snowden made public NSA programs like PRISM.

Conversely, in 2012 Obama’s justice department asked the Supreme Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and other organizations that challenged the constitutionality of surveillance programs authorized by the FISC to surveil foreign persons. Plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit worked for domestic companies that dealt with overseas clients; those plaintiffs feared their electronic communications were being monitored.

The Supreme Court found the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Supreme Court dismissed the case in February 2013 saying the plaintiffs challenge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were “based too much on speculation.”

Four months later, the Guardian would make public the existence of PRISM and other NSA spying programs.

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Obama: “I signed an executive order well before Mr. Snowden leaked this information that provided whistle-blower protection to the intelligence community for the first time. So there were other avenues available for somebody whose conscience was stirred and thought that they needed to question government actions.”

Fact: In October 2012, Obama signed into law “Presidential Policy Directive 19,” which gave protection to employees of a “covered agency” who had access to classified information. A “covered agency” was defined in the directive as an “executive department or independent establishment” with a government function.

Snowden worked as an employee for Booz Allen Hamilton, a civilian technological consulting firm, which is not a “covered agency.” Thus, Directive 19 would not have afforded Snowden any whistleblower protections.

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Obama: “If you look at the reports, even the disclosures that Mr. Snowden’s put forward, all the stories that have been written, what you’re not reading about is the government actually abusing these programs, and, you know, listening in on people’s phone calls or inappropriately reading people’s emails.”

Fact: On August 5, Reuters published a report that disclosed a previously-unknown division of the Drug Enforcement Agency called the Special Operations Division.

According to Reuters, SOD receives tips from a wide variety of sources, including National Security Administration intercepts, to capture and prosecute criminals accused of a variety of drug crimes. Worse, Reuters reports DEA agents are instructed to re-create investigations against individuals in order to conceal the existence of SOD.

The EFF calls this “intelligence laundering,” and it raises questions as to whether administration and intelligence officials are truthful when they say NSA surveillance is not being used beyond the monitoring of foreign subjects.

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The full transcript of President Obama’s remarks can be found here.