Surveillance: Snowden NSA Controversy

President Obama Press Conference

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 11:00 AM

This morning's press conference with President Obama and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte has just concluded. We've thus removed the embedded video player, and will await a transcript of the two leaders' remarks---which touched on, among other things, Russia's activities in Crimea and U.S. surveillance activities.

The President had traveled to the Netherlands to attend the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit; his comments on that event's conclusion can be found here.

UPDATE: here's a transcript of today's presser.  Note these exchanges regarding the NSA:

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  You’ve been criticized during this dispute with Russia as not understanding President Putin’s motivations.  As recently as last month, you and others in your administration said you thought Putin was reflecting or pausing his incursion into Crimea.  Did you misread Putin’s intentions?  And what do you think his motivations are now?

And if I could just quickly ask on NSA, when you spoke about the NSA review in January you said you weren’t sold on the option of having phone companies hold metadata and you thought it raised additional privacy concerns.  What has changed for you on that matter since that time, and do you think Congress will pass the legislation you're seeking?

And, Mr. Prime Minister, there are leaders in Europe who have concerns about the sector sanction the President has proposed on Russia’s economy.  Do you think any of those leaders have had their concerns alleviated during their talks with the President over the past few days?  Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  All right, let me see if I can remember all these.  (Laughter.)

PRIME MINISTER RUTTE:  I have only one question.  (Laughter.)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  With respect to President Putin’s motivation, I think there’s been a lot of speculation.  I'm less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold.  I don't think that any of us have been under any illusion that Russia has been very interested in controlling what happens to Ukraine.  That's not new.  That's been the case for years now. That's been the case dating back to the Orange Revolution.

But what we have said consistently throughout this process is that it is up to the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions about how they organize themselves and who they interact with.  And it's always been our belief that Ukraine is going to have a relationship to Russia -- there is a strong historic bond between the two countries -- but that that does not justify Russia encroaching on Ukraine’s territorial integrity or sovereignty.

That's exactly what’s happened.  And I said very early on that should Russia do so, there would be consequences.  And working with our European partners and our international partners, we have put in place sanctions that have already had some impact on the Russian economy.

Now, moving forward, we have said -- and I want to be very clear about this -- we're not recognizing what has happened in Crimea.  The notion that a referendum sloppily organized over the course of two weeks would somehow justify the breaking off of Crimea and the annexation by Russia -- that somehow that would be a valid process I think the overwhelming majority of the world rejects.  But we are also concerned about the further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.

So what I announced and what the European Council announced was that we were consulting and putting in place the framework, the architecture for additional sanctions, additional costs should Russia take this next step.

What we also said, and will continue to say, is that there is another path available to Russia.  The Ukrainian government has said it is prepared to negotiate with Russia; that it is prepared to recognize its international obligations.  And the international community has been supportive of a diplomatic process that would allow a de-escalation of tensions, a moving back of Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders, and rapidly organized elections that allow the Ukrainian people to choose their leadership.  And my expectation is, is that if the Ukrainian people are allowed to make their own decisions, their decision will be that they want to have a relationship with Europe and they want to have a relationship with Russia, and that this is not a zero-sum game.

And I think that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and the current government have shown remarkable restraint and are prepared to go down that diplomatic path.  It is now up to Russia to act responsibly and show itself to be once again willing to abide by international rules and international norms.  And if it chooses to do so, I think that there can be a better outcome.  If it fails to do so, there will be additional costs.  And those will have some disruption, in fact, to the global economy, but they’ll have the greatest impact on Russia.  So I think that will be a bad choice for President Putin to make, but ultimately he’s the President of Russia and he’s the one who’s going to be making that decision.  He just has to understand that there’s a choice to be made here.

With respect -- even though this was directed at Mark, I just want to address this issue of sectoral sanctions.  So far what we've done is we've put in place sanctions that impact individuals, restricts visas being issued to them, freezes their assets.  We have identified one bank in particular in Russia that was well known to be the bank of choice for many of the persons who support and facilitate Russian officials from carrying out some of these activities.  But what we've held off on are more broad-based sanctions that would impact entire sectors of the Russian economy.

It has not just been my suggestion but it has also been the European Council’s suggestion that should Russia go further, such sectoral sanctions would be appropriate.  And that would include areas potentially like energy, or finance, or arm sales, or trade that exists between Europe and the United States and Russia.

And what we’re doing now is, at a very technical level, examining the impacts of each of these sanctions.  Some particular sanctions would hurt some countries more than others. But all of us recognize that we have to stand up for a core principle that lies at the heart of the international order and that facilitated European union and the incredible prosperity and peace that Europe has enjoyed now for decades.

And so, although it could cause some disruptions to each of our economies or certain industries, what I’ve been encouraged by is the firmness and the willingness on the part of all countries to look at ways in which they can participate in this process.  Our preference throughout will be to resolve this diplomatically, but I think we’re prepared -- as we’ve already shown -- to take the next step if the situation gets worse.

Finally, on Ukraine, I think it’s very important that we spend as much effort on bolstering the economy inside of Ukraine and making sure that the elections proceed in an orderly fashion. And so my hope is that the IMF is able to complete a package for Ukraine rapidly to stabilize their finances and their economy.  The OSCE, other international organizations, are sending in observers and monitors and are providing technical assistance to make sure that the elections are free and fair.  The sooner those elections take place, the sooner the economy is stabilized, the better positioned the Ukrainian people will be in terms of managing what is a very challenging situation.

With respect to the NSA -- and I’ll be just brief on this -- I said several months ago that I was assigning our various agencies in the IC -- the intelligence community -- to bring me new options with respect to the telephone database program.  They have presented me now with an option that I think is workable.  And it addresses the two core concerns that people have -- number one, the idea of government storing bulk data generally.  This ensures that the government is not in position of that bulk data.
I want to emphasize once again that some of the dangers that people hypothesized when it came to bulk data there were clear safeguards against.  But I recognize that people were concerned about what might happen in the future with that bulk data.  This proposal that’s been presented to me would eliminate that concern.

The second thing that people were concerned about is making sure that not only is a judge overseeing the overall program, but also that a judge is looking at each individual inquiry that’s made into a database.  And this new plan that’s been presented to me does that.

So overall, I’m confident that it allows us to do what is necessary in order to deal with the dangers of a terrorist attack, but does so in a way that addresses some of the concerns that people have raised.  And I’m looking forward to working with Congress to make sure that we go ahead and pass the enabling legislation quickly so that we can get on with the business of effective law enforcement.


Q    Mr. President, you met a lot of leaders here; many were angry about the NSA story.  Have you fixed the relationships with these leaders?  And the second question is, many are shocked by the extent of which the NSA collects private data.  Today we heard in The New York Times that you plan to end the systematic collection of data of Americans.  But can you address the concerns of the Dutch and the rest of the world about their privacy?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, first of all, we have had a consistent, unbreakable bond between the leaders of Europe over the last several decades, and it’s across many dimensions -- economic, military, counterterrorism, cultural.  And so any one issue can be an irritant in the relationship between the countries, but it doesn’t define those relationships.  And that continues to be the case and that has been the case throughout the last couple of years.

As I said in a speech that I gave earlier this year, the United States is very proud of its record of working with countries around the world to prevent terrorism or nuclear proliferation, or human trafficking, or a whole host of issues that all of us I think would be concerned about.  Intelligence plays a critical role in that process.

What we’ve seen is that as technology has evolved, the guidelines and structures that constrain how our intelligence agencies operate have not kept pace with these advances in technology.  And although having examined over the last year, year and a half what’s been done, I’m confident that everybody in our intelligence agencies operates in the best of intentions and is not snooping into the privacy of ordinary Dutch, German, French, or American citizens.  What is true is, is that there is a danger because of these new technologies that at some point it could be abused.  And that’s why I initiated a broad-based review of what we could do.

There are a couple of things that we did that are unprecedented.  In my speech I announced that, for the first time, under my direction, that we are going to treat the privacy concerns of non-U.S. persons as seriously as we are the constraints that already exist by law on U.S. persons.  We’re doing that not because we’re bound by international law, but because ultimately it’s the right thing to do.

With respect to some of the aspects of data collection, what I’ve been very clear about is, is that there has to be a narrow purpose to it, not a broad-based purpose; but it’s rather based on a specific concern around terrorism or counter-proliferation, or human trafficking, or something that I think all of us would say has to be pursued.

And so what I’ve tried to do then is to make sure that my intelligence teams are consulting very closely at each stage with their counterparts in other nations so that there’s greater transparency in terms of what exactly we’re doing, what we’re not doing.  Some of the reporting here in Europe, as well as in the United States, frankly, has been pretty sensationalized.  I think the fears about our privacy in this age of the Internet and big data are justified.  I think the actual facts -- people would have an assurance that if you are just the ordinary citizen in any of these countries, that your privacy, in fact, is not being invaded on.

But I recognize that because of these revelations, that there’s a process that’s taking place where we have to win back the trust not just of governments but, more importantly, of ordinary citizens.  And that’s not going to happen overnight, because I think that there’s a tendency to be skeptical of government and to be skeptical in particular of U.S. intelligence services.  And so it’s going to be necessary for us -- the step we took that was announced today I think is an example of us slowly, systematically putting in more checks, balances, legal processes.

The good news is that I’m very confident that it can be achieved, and I’m also confident that the core values that America has always believed in, in terms of privacy, rule of law, individual rights, that that has guided the United States for many years and it will continue to guide us into the future.

Thank you very much, everybody.  Thank you again.