President Obama says the federal government is not spying on Americans, but one of his former aides disagrees.
Obama appeared on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” Tuesday and defended the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
“There is no spying on Americans,” Obama said. “We don’t have a domestic spying program. What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. And that information is useful.
But one of his former advisers, Van Jones, said the government indeed is spying on citizens. Jones is a former environmental adviser and currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He also is co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.”
“Everybody knows I love this president, but this is ridiculous,” Jones said, according to CNN.com. “We do have a spying program, and we need to figure out how to balance these out.”
Obama also defended his administration’s treatment of whistleblowers, saying that via executive order, he had “signed whistleblower protection for intelligence officers or people who are involved in the intelligence industry.” Obama didn’t say whether he believes former NSA contractor Edward Snowden is a whistleblower.
“You don’t have to divulge information that could compromise American security,” Obama said. “You can come forward, come to the appropriate individuals and say, look, I’ve got a problem with what’s going on here, I’m not sure whether it’s being done properly.”
Jones, though, said Obama wasn’t being honest. The Justice Department charged Snowden with espionage and theft.
“You are prosecuting more whistleblowers than every American president combined,” Jones said. “You can’t yuck it up and say, well, whistleblowers come on out and we’ll treat you right.”
Jones’ criticism of Obama came as a New York Times story Thursday revealed that the NSA – without a warrant — is examining Americans’ communication when such communication crosses the border. The NSA is combing through email and text communications and believes it is authorized to do so by a 2008 law, the FISA Amendments Act, in which “Congress approved eavesdropping on domestic soil without warrants as long as the ‘target’ was a noncitizen abroad.”
“The N.S.A. is not just intercepting the communications of Americans who are in direct contact with foreigners targeted overseas, a practice that government officials have openly acknowledged,” the story said. “It is also casting a far wider net for people who cite information linked to those foreigners, like a little used e-mail address, according to a senior intelligence official.”
Actual phone call conversations are not being examined, the senior official told the Times, although most e-mails and texts that cross the border apparently are examined. A computer looks for keywords, and the e-mails and texts that match those words are then inspected by humans. NSA defends the program by saying it is targeting the foreign suspect, and not the American.
The American Civil Liberties Union calls the NSA’s program unconstitutional.
“One of the fundamental problems with the Act is that it permits the government to conduct surveillance without probable cause or individualized suspicion,” the ACLU said in an analysis of the law. “It permits the government to monitor people who aren’t even thought to be doing anything wrong, and to do so without particularized warrants or meaningful review by impartial judges.”
Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU attorney, told the Times the NSA’s program will be “poisonous” to the “freedoms of inquiry and association.
“[People will] hesitate before visiting controversial websites, discussing controversial topics or investigating politically sensitive questions,” Jaffer said. “Individually, these hesitations might appear to be inconsequential, but the accumulation of them over time will change citizens’ relationship to one another and to the government.”