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Is Obama rethinking surveillance thanks to a new report?

December 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JOHN LARSEN: The White House said Friday it had received a report from a presidential advisory group asked to recommend changes in the nation’s surveillance programs. What comes next? For more, we are joined now from Washington by David Sanger. He’s the national security correspondent for The New York Times.

JOHN LARSEN: David, what recommendations do you think the group made and what’s the president likely to do with them?

DAVID SANGER: Well you know, right now we only know about a few of the recommendations that are in the report. There are more than 40 total recommendations in the report, while not classified, is gonna remain confidential the White House says until the President’s had a chance to review it and make some decisions. But a few things we do know. The first is that the President has decided to continue the bulk collection of domestically gathered telephone numbers. These are the very controversial program that was revealed by the Snowden documents. The Edward Snowden documents, which involves the United States keeping records back about five years of every telephone call that is made from the United States, in the United States and what number that call was made to. Does not record conversations. The second big decision that we know the president has made and the White House has now announced is the National Security Agency is not going to be split off from US Cyber Command. Now Cyber Command is the Pentagon’s branch that both defends the Pentagon’s networks against cyber attacks and puts together offensive attacks very similar to the one that the United States conducted on Iran a few years ago. Some people have been concerned that puts too much power in the hands of one military commander. The president has decided to go ahead with it.

JOHN LARSEN: I’m struck by the combination in your stories and this issue about you know, the perceived need for some sort of transparency. And yet, the public’s either not seeming to be too alarmed on this or at least giving the government some leeway on this. It’s almost like a, you know, the public’s right to know, in this case it’s almost like the public doesn’t want to know. Do you sense that push and pull?

DAVID SANGER:  You certainly do sense that push and pull and there was a bit of a sense right now that the committee that reported to President Obama was in fact significantly more aggressive in talking about cutting back on some of these programs than the public has at least articulated so far. We think that the committee in fact wants to have significantly greater transparency for a number of the programs. There’s a good indication that they are in favor of making sure that if the government goes to get a warrant from a foreign intelligence surveillance court that there’s someone to argue the other side, the privacy side of that. That’s been debated some in the elite circles in the United States but it hasn’t become a regular subject of say cable news shows and so forth and it does raise an interesting question: are Americans in a post-911 era simply not only accustomed to increased government surveillance but increasingly accepting of it?

JOHN LARSEN: You must watch with great interest what the public’s reaction or sometimes lack of reaction is on this. Do you feel like at any point there will be a tipping point one way or the other where all of a sudden the public really grabs on to a part of this issue?

DAVID SANGER: Well you know as my colleagues at the Times reported this morning, the Snowden revelations are not yet over. In fact, the NSA doesn’t really have a full grasp of how much material he left with so we don’t have a full sense yet of what’s to come and it’s easy to imagine that some future revelation could change the American public view. But I think the overall sense right now is that Americans are willing to accept a level of surveillance that it’s hard to imagine they would have been willing to accept prior to 911 even though that was a dozen years ago. And it’s also possible that a younger generation that has grown up on Facebook and had their digital lives out for many to see simply does not get as upset about the fact that the government collects this data. And as you know, when you go online, it’s clear that many private companies collect far more about that. Your shopping preferences and so forth, you see it from the ads that show up on the edges of your screen whenever you’re typing in a search. So it is very possible that there’s been a sea change in the American public view of this problem.

JOHN LARSEN: As you mentioned earlier, it’s also, it’s our government that is taking these actions whereas over in Europe you know it’s their president’s that are being hacked. They’re the ones it’s being directed at them and the population there has a completely different response to this story. It’s still headline news.

DAVID SANGER: Their populations overseas, particularly in Germany and Mexico, and Brazil, all countries where the NSA conducted extensive surveillance on the leaders, their reactions have been very different. And you know, it raises a really interesting question which is one that the current head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, raised in an interview that we had with him two months ago. And that is, can the United States continue to view its partners who it needs so much in things like defending against cyber attacks as targets as well?  Now during the cold war the Germans sort of accepted the fact that their government was under American surveillance because the US was in charge of Germany’s existential security against a Soviet threat. Today, most Germans don’t view the United States as central to their security and they may not be willing to put up with as much surveillance from the American government.

JOHN LARSEN: David Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times. Thank you so much for joining us.

DAVID SANGER: Thank you.