Barack Obama photo

Interview with Charlie Rose on PBS "Charlie Rose"

June 17, 2013

ROSE: Thank you for this opportunity on Father's Day -- and as you're about to go to Ireland for the G-8 conference.

It's been an extraordinary week --


ROSE: Syria, Iranian elections, demonstrations in Turkey, NSA questions. So I want to talk about all of that.


ROSE: Let me begin with elections in Iran.


ROSE: How do you read them? Seventy-five percent of the people voted; the moderate won. What does this say and what are the opportunities there?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it says that the Iranian people want to move in a different direction. And you know, if you contrast this with the violence and suppression that happened in the last presidential election, obviously, you have a much more positive atmosphere this time. The Iranian people rebuffed the hardliners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything, any time, anywhere. Clearly, you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way.

Now, Mr. Rowhani, who won the election, I think indicated his interest in shifting how Iran approaches many of these international questions. But I think we understand that under their system, the supreme leader will be making a lot of decisions. And so we're going to have to continue to see how this develops and how this evolves over the next several weeks, months, years.

I do think that there's a possibility that they decide -- the Iranians decide -- to take us up on our offer to engage in a more serious, substantive way. And you know, our bottom lines have been: Show the international community that you're abiding by international treaties and obligations; that you're not developing a nuclear weapon. Based on that, there are a whole range of measures that can be taken to try to normalize the relationship between Iran and the world. But we don't know yet if they're going to be willing to take up that offer. They had not been during my entire first term when we showed ourselves open to these discussions.

ROSE: You're prepared to have someone in your administration talk to them immediately, or does it have to be conditioned on other things, as you suggested?

THE PRESIDENT: No. I think that my general view is we are open to discussions -- both through the P-5 plus one and through potential bilateral channels -- and we recognize that you're not going to solve problems all up front as a precondition for talks. But there has to be a serious recognition that the sanctions we put in place, for example -- the most powerful sanctions, economic sanctions, that have ever been applied against Iran -- that those will not be lifted in the absence of significant steps in showing the international community that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon. And as long as there's an understanding about the basis of the conversation, then I think there's no reason why we shouldn't proceed.

ROSE: Let me turn to Syria. Define the new policy that you are articulating with respect to Syria and why now?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not sure you can characterize this as a new policy. This is consistent with the policy that I've had throughout. Remember how this evolved? The president of Syria, Assad, was presented with peaceful protestors in the wake of the Arab Spring. He responded with violence and oppression and that has continued to escalate.

And the United States has humanitarian interests in the region. We've seen at least 100,000 people slaughtered inside of Syria -- many of them women and children, innocent civilians. And the United States always has an interest in preventing that kind of bloodshed when possible. We have a regional interest, because we now have, for example, more than 500,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan -- Jordan a strong ally of ours. We do not want to see Jordan de- stabilized as a consequence of what's happening Syria. We're also seeing Iraq affected; Lebanon, obviously, affected. So we have a regional interest.

And finally, we've got a direct interest when it comes to chemical weapons. We've got a strong taboo that's been established in the international community against using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons. And what developed over, you know, several months was high confidence that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. And I had been very clear that if we saw the use of chemical weapons taking place by the regime inside of Syria, that that would change my calculus. And it has.

Now, in terms of what my goals are: The goals are a stable, nonsectarian, representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes. We're not taking sides in a religious war between Shia and Sunni. Really, what we're trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government and over the long term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria. And so my goal -- we've been supporting an opposition; we've been trying to help the opposition -- along with our international partners, help the opposition become more cohesive. We've been assisting not only the political opposition, but also the military opposition. So there's a counterweight that can potentially lead to political negotiations. With the evidence of chemical weapons, what we've said is we're going to ramp up that assistance. And my hope continues to be, however, that we resolve this through some sort of political transition.

But what's been clear is that Assad, at this point -- in part because of his support from Iran and from Russia -- believes that he does not have to engage in a political transition; believes that he can continue to simply violently suppress over half of the population. And as long as he's got that mindset, it's going to be very difficult to resolve the situation there.

ROSE: A couple things come out of this: Clearly, you had a red line; and clearly, you say you have confirming evidence of that. Other people have raised questions as to why you didn't do it earlier: Senator McCain -- even last week, former President Clinton.


ROSE: There's also the question as to whether you knew if you supplied weapons they would stay in the hands of people that you intended them for.

Have you been settled on that question? That you can ship weapons and they can go to the hands of the people that you intend to benefit?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, Charlie, I've said I'm ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I've not specified exactly what we're doing and I won't do so on this show. That's point number one.

Point number two is that this argument that somehow if we had gone in earlier or heavier in some fashion that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn't be taking place I think is wrong. And --

ROSE: Why do you think it's wrong?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it's wrong, because the fact of the matter is, is that the way these situations get resolved are politically. And you know, the people who are being suppressed inside of Syria, who developed into a military opposition -- you know, these folks are carpenters and, you know, blacksmiths and dentists. These aren't professional fighters. The notion that there was some professional military inside of Syria for us to immediately support a year ago or two years ago is simply --

ROSE: Yeah, but there former Syrian generals who are part of the Free Syrian Army.

THE PRESIDENT: There were those who were a part, but I don't think that anybody would suggest that somehow, that there was a ready- made military opposition inside of Syria that could somehow have quickly and cleanly defeated the Syrian army or Assad or overthrown it.

And what is also true is that we've had to sort out and figure out exactly who it is that is in the opposition, because --

ROSE: And you've done that now?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we have deepened our relationship and we have better information about who are the moderate members of the opposition, who are members of the opposition who are affiliated with al-Nusra, who are affiliated with al-Qaida, who are coming in from Iraq or Yemen or Pakistan or Afghanistan. And one of the challenges that we have is that some of the most effective fighters within the opposition have been those who frankly are not particularly friendly towards the United States of America. And arming them willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term.

The last point I'd make on this is, you know, a lot of critics who've suggested that if we go in hot and heavy -- no-fly zone, setting up humanitarian corridors and so forth --

ROSE: Heavy artillery?

THE PRESIDENT: Heavy artillery -- that that offers a simpler solution. But the fact of the matter is, for example, 90 percent of the deaths that have taken place haven't been because of airstrikes by the Syrian air force. The Syrian air force isn't particularly good; they can't aim very well. It's been happening on the ground.

ROSE: So you think a no-fly zone is not necessary?

THE PRESIDENT: What I'm saying is that if you haven't been in the Situation Room pouring through intelligence and meeting directly with our military folks and asking, what are all our options; and examining, what are all the consequences? And understanding that, for example, if you set up a no-fly zone, that you may not be actually solving the problem on the ground; or if you set up a humanitarian corridor, are you in fact committed not only to stopping aircrafts from going over that quarter, but also missiles? And if so, does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus? And are you prepared, then, to bomb Damascus? And what happens if there are civilian casualties? And have we mapped all of the chemical weapons facilities inside of Syria to make sure that we don't drop a bomb on a chemical weapons facility that ends up, then, dispersing chemical weapons and killing civilians, which is exactly what we're trying to prevent?

Unless you've been involved in those conversations, then it's kind of hard for you to understand the complexities of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East. And we've got --

ROSE: That's why people think you're hesitant, because you do not want to get involved in another conflict, having extricated the United States from Iraq and also, soon from Afghanistan. And the idea --

THE PRESIDENT: Charlie, I --

ROSE: -- of another conflict and getting involved in a war that has real significant Sunni-Shia implications and could explode into the region -- you want no part of that, even though there has been a turn in the tide in Syria with the Assad regime and the Assad army, with the help of Hezbollah, doing better.

THE PRESIDENT: Charlie, that shouldn't just be my concern; that should be everybody's concern. We went through that. We know what it's like to rush into a war in the Middle East without having thought it through. And there are elements within the Middle East who see this entirely through the prism of a Shia-Sunni conflict and want the United States to simply take the side of the Sunnis. And that I do not think serves American interests.

As I said before, the distinction I make is between extremists and those who recognize in a 21st century world that the way the Middle East is going to succeed is when you have governments that meet the aspirations of their people, that are tolerant, that are not sectarian. And working through that is something that we have to do in deliberate fashion.

So when I hear debates out there, on the one hand, folks saying, you know, "Katy bar the door," let's just go in and knock out Syria.

ROSE: But they're not asking that.


ROSE: I mean, it seems to me that what they're asking is, you know, supply them with heavy artillery --

THE PRESIDENT: But here's what -- here's what happens, Charlie: It is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments, because if it's not working immediately, then what ends up happening is six months from now people say, well, you gave the heavy artillery, now what we really need is X and now what we really need is Y, because until Assad is defeated, in this view, it's never going to be enough, right?

Now, on the other side, there are folks who say, you know, we are so scarred from Iraq, we should have learned our lesson; we should not have anything to do with it. Well, I reject that view as well, because the fact of the matter is, is that we've got serious interests there and not only humanitarian interests. We can't have a situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan, which in turn borders Israel. And we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved.

But for us to do it in a careful, calibrated way sometimes is unsatisfying, because what people really typically want is a clean solution, a silver bullet. Here's what we're going to do and we just move forward. Well, that's not, unfortunately, how the world works.

ROSE: You do not accept the idea that if you do what the rebels want you to do -- the Free Syrian Army wants you to do; and what Arab governments want you to do, that would turn the tide and lead to Assad leaving, which has been, I think, your objective?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, my objective, understand, is Assad leaving because he de-legitimized himself by what he did to his people.

My genuine objective, though, is a Syria that is functioning and is representative and is not engaged in sectarian civil war and, you know, represents all factions within Syria. That's my objective.

And I believe that it is important for us to support a legitimate, credible opposition that might usher in that day. But any notion that somehow we're just a few, you know, anti-helicopter or tank weapons away from tipping in that direction, I think, is not being realistic analyzing the situation on the ground.

ROSE: But I understood Denis McDonough on "Face the Nation" this morning suggest there may be more coming.

THE PRESIDENT: What is true is, is that I will preserve every option available to me and continually make assessments about what's in the interests of the United States.

ROSE: Does this mean that the possibility that Senator Kerry had been working on for some conference in Geneva has been delayed, because of this decision by you?

THE PRESIDENT: What it means is that we have not yet seen a serious commitment on the part of both the Assad regime and the Russians to deliver on what was in the original Geneva communique, which said that we would put in place a political transition process that would lead to a genuine transfer of power. And until we see a commitment for a serious negotiation, as opposed to just stalling tactics, I don't want Assad to have comfort in thinking that he can simply continue to kill people on the ground, not engage politically, and that at some point the international community loses focus.

ROSE: OK. But were you concerned that the tide seemed to have turned for Assad, with the help of Hezbollah, and that he was making victories that would enable him to achieve some turn in the way the war was perceived and you felt the urgency to act?

THE PRESIDENT: I felt concern both about the lack of progress on the political track; I felt that we had done better preparatory work in identifying and working with opposition figures. And what we saw was clear evidence that we have high confidence in and that we will, with our allies, be presenting before the United Nations that in fact, the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

ROSE: Let me go to China. Last week at this time, you were meeting with the president of China, Xi Jinping. What came out of that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, this was an unconventional summit. We did it outside of the White House. First time a Chinese president, I think, had been outside of a formal state visit.

ROSE: Did it make things better -- an informality effort?

THE PRESIDENT: What it allowed for is, I think, a more honest conversation. My impression of President Xi is that he has consolidated his position fairly rapidly inside of China; that he is younger and more forceful and more robust and more confident, perhaps, than some leaders in the past. And the discussions were very useful, for example, on a problem like North Korea.

We've seen the Chinese take more seriously the problem of constant provocation, and statements from the North Koreans rejecting denuclearization, and they've been acting on it. In ways in the past, they would try to paper over the tensions and, you know, let's kind of push those problems aside. We're seeing, I think, an interest and a willingness to engage with us in a strategic conversation around those things.

You know, what I wanted to underscore and establish with him is the kind of relationship that recognizes it is in China's interests and the United States interests for this relationship to work; that both leaders would be betraying their people if a healthy competition, largely economic, degenerated into serious conflict.

China's got -- obviously continues to have enormous potential, but they've also got big challenges.

ROSE: Yeah. They just announced the challenge that they have to move people from rural areas to the cities today.

THE PRESIDENT: Look, you know, they've got -- they've got 100 million people who live in extreme poverty, meaning they're making two bucks a day. They've got pollution problems that are unbearable even for a rising middle class there. Huge problems of inequality and they're going to have to rethink their economic model that's been based entirely on exports and refocus on domestic demand.

So those are a series of strategic conversations that they're about to make. And they also have to think about how are they operating with their neighbors as they continue to rise, because what we've seen is, is that as they become bigger, the folks around them get more nervous. And around maritime issues, for example: In the South China Sea, smaller countries like Vietnam and the Philippines feel very nervous about China's behavior.

And so part of the conversation with President Xi is to say that as a rising -- we want to encourage you to -- continue your peaceful rise. But as a rising power, you have now responsibilities. And it is in your interests to partner with us and other countries to set up international rules of the road --

ROSE: And they're responsive to that, in the words of Robert Zoellick to the Chinese: You have to be a stakeholder now.

THE PRESIDENT: You are a stakeholder.

ROSE: And are they responsive to that? Are they looking at situations like, you know, we can be almost a kind of G-2?

THE PRESIDENT: Right. Well, look, obviously, there are a lot of countries around the world who are significant both regionally and internationally.

ROSE: We're talking about the two biggest economies in the world.

THE PRESIDENT: But there's -- but we're talking about the two biggest economies in the world. We've got to get this relationship right and China does need to be a stakeholder. And I think that they recognize that. But look, they have achieved such rapid growth and they have grown so fast -- almost on steroids -- that there's a part of them that still thinks of themselves as this poor country that's got all these problems; the United States is, you know, the big cheese out there trying to dictate things, perhaps trying to contain our rise.

And so I think what you're seeing inside of Chinese leadership is the desire to maybe continue not to be responsible, not to be a full stakeholder, work the international system on something like trade or intellectual property rights; get as much as they can and be free riders and let the United States worry about the big hassles and the big problems. At the same time, a growing nationalist pride where they say, you know, we're big too and we should be seen as equals on the world stage.

And what we're saying to them is you can't pick and choose. You know, you can't have all the rights of a major world power, but none of the responsibilities. And if you accept both, then I think you will have a strong partner of the United States.

So I'm optimistic about the future, but you know, what I've found working with the Chinese government is candor, being clear about American values, pushing back when the Chinese are trying to take advantage of us, we have to --

ROSE: Speaking of pushing back, what happened when you pushed back on the question of hacking and the serious allegations that come from this country that believe that the Chinese are making serious strides in hacking not only private sector, but public sector?

THE PRESIDENT: We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity.

ROSE: Do they acknowledge it?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, when you're having a conversation like this, I don't think you ever expect a Chinese leader to say, you know what? You're right. You caught us red handed --

ROSE: [chuckles] You got me.

THE PRESIDENT: We just -- we're stealing all your stuff and every day we try to figure out how we can get into Apple's --

ROSE: But do they now say, look, see, you're doing the same thing; we've been reading about what NSA is doing and you're doing the same thing that we're doing? And there are coming some allegations that -- and the man who is now unleashing these secrets, who's telling everybody, is in Hong Kong and may be talking to the Chinese.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Well, let's separate out the NSA issue, which I'm sure you're going to want to talk to, and the whole balance of privacy and security with the specific issue of cybersecurity and our concerns with --

ROSE: And cyber --

THE PRESIDENT: And cyber --

ROSE: -- warfare and cyber espionage.

THE PRESIDENT: Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering. And that is an occasional source of tension, but it's generally practiced within bounds. There is a big difference between China wanting to figure out how do they find out what my talking points are when I'm meeting with the Japanese, which is standard fare. And we try to prevent them from penetrating that and they try to get that information. There's a big difference between that and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple's software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product. That's theft and we can't tolerate that.

And so we've had very blunt conversations about this. They understand, I think, that this can adversely affect the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship. We don't consider this a side note in our conversations. We think this is central, in part, because our economic relationship is going to continue to be premised on the fact that the United States is the world's innovator; we have the greatest R&D; we have the greatest entrepreneurial culture. Our value-added is at the top of the value chain. And if countries like China are stealing that, that affects our long-term prosperity in a serious way.

ROSE: It is said also that the reason they do it is that they want to achieve some kind of military parity at some point and that's a motivating factor.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm sure that that is.

ROSE: Let's turn to NSA.


ROSE: You famously talked about the -- what you called the wrong choice between security and freedom. Where do you put what NSA is doing in that balance between security and freedom? A false choice is what you called it.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me start with the fact that at the National Defense University several weeks ago -- when most of the focus was around the drone program and my plans in Afghanistan and the need for us to move away from a perpetual war footing -- that I specifically said one of the things we need to debate and examine is our surveillance programs, because those were set up right after 9/11. It's now been over a decade and we have to examine them.

ROSE: And what should the debate be?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, and what I've said and I continue to believe is we don't have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That's a false choice. That doesn't mean that there are not tradeoffs involved in any given program, any given action that we take. So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports, which when we were growing up, that wasn't the case, right? You ran up to the gate --

ROSE: Exactly. [chuckles]

THE PRESIDENT: Five minutes to get to the plane, you're running on.

ROSE: Right, been there.

THE PRESIDENT: And you know, it's been awhile since I went through commercial flying, but I gather the experience is not the same, right?

ROSE: [chuckles] It's not; it's gotten worse.

THE PRESIDENT: And so that's a trade off with me. The same way we make a tradeoff about drunk driving. We say occasionally there are going to be checkpoints; they may be intrusive. To say there's a tradeoff doesn't mean somehow that we've abandoned freedom. I don't think anybody says we're no longer free, because we have checkpoints at airports.

ROSE: But there is a balance here.

THE PRESIDENT: But there is a balance, so I'm going to get to your -- get to your question. The way I view it, my job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. 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.

Now, with respect to the NSA -- a government agency that has been in the intelligence-gathering business for a very long time.

ROSE: Bigger and better than everybody.

THE PRESIDENT: Bigger and better than everybody else. And we should take pride in that, because they're extraordinary professionals; they're dedicated to keeping the American people safe.

What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls; and the NSA cannot target your e-mails --

ROSE: And have not?

THE PRESIDENT: And have not. They cannot and have not by law and by rule. And unless they -- and usually it wouldn't be they, it would be the FBI -- go to a court and obtain a warrant and seek probable cause. The same way it's always been; the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies. You wanted to go set up a wiretap, you've got to go to a judge, show probable cause. And then the judge looks at the -- that probable cause.

ROSE: But have any of those been turned down -- all the requests to FISA courts, have they been turned down at all?

THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish here, Charlie, because I want to make sure -- this debate has gotten cloudy very quickly.

ROSE: Exactly, exactly.

THE PRESIDENT: So point number one: If you're a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your e-mails, unless it's getting an individualized court order. That's the existing rule.

There are two programs that were revealed by Mr. Snowden, allegedly, since there's a criminal investigation taking place, and -- that caused all the ruckus.

Program number one, called the 2015 program: What that does is it gets data from the service providers, like a Verizon, in bulk. And basically, you have call pairs. You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names; there's no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there.

So if the NSA, through some other sources -- maybe through the FBI, may through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD -- gets a -- gets a number that where there's a reasonable, articulable suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to al-Qaida and some other international terrorist actors, then what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see, do any of the -- does this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out, a report will be produced, it will be turned over to the FBI. At no point is any content revealed, because there's no content in the database.

ROSE: So I hear you saying, I have no problem with what the NSA has been doing.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me finish, because I don't.

So what happens, then, is that the FBI -- if in fact it now wants to get content; if in fact it wants to start tapping that phone -- it's got to go to the FISA court with probably cause and ask for a warrant.

ROSE: But has FISA courts turned down any requests?

THE PRESIDENT: Because, first of all, Charlie, the number of requests are surprisingly small, number one; number two, folks don't go with a query unless they've got a pretty good suspicion.

ROSE: Should this be transparent in some way?

THE PRESIDENT: It is transparent. That's why we set up the FISA court.

Look, the whole point of my concern before I was president -- because some people say, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before, now he's, you know, Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney sometimes says, yeah, you know, he took it all lock, stock and barrel.

ROSE: [chuckles] Yeah, OK.

My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances. So on this telephone program, you've got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program and you've got Congress overseeing the program -- not just the Intelligence Committee, not just the Judiciary Committee. But all of Congress had available to it, before the last reauthorization, exactly how this program works.

Now, one last point I want to make, because what you'll hear is people say, OK, we have no evidence that it has been abused so far. And they say, let's even grant that Obama's not abusing it. There are all these processes, DOJ is examining it; it's being audited; it's being renewed periodically, et cetera. The very fact that there's all this data in bulk has the enormous potential for abuse, because they'll say, you know, you can -- when you start looking at metadata, even if you don't know the names, you can match it up. If there's a call to an oncologist and it's a call to a lawyer, you can pair that up and figure up maybe this person's dying and they're writing their will and you can yield all this information. All of that is true, except for the fact that for the government under the program right now to do that, it would be illegal; we would not be allowed to do that.

ROSE: So what are you going to change? Are you going to issue any kind of instructions to the director of National Intelligence, Mr. Clapper, and say, I want you to change it at least in this way?

THE PRESIDENT: Here's what we need to do, but before I say that -- and I know that we're running out of time, but I want to make sure I get very clear on this, because there's been a lot of misinformation out there.

There is a second program called the 702 program. And what that does is that does not apply to any U.S. person. It has to be a foreign entity. It can only be narrowly related to counterterrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks. And a select number of identifiers -- phone numbers, e-mails, et cetera -- those -- and the process has all been approved by the courts -- you can send to providers -- the Yahoo!s or the Googles, what have you -- in the same way that you'd present, essentially, a warrant. And what will happen then is, is that you there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to U.S. persons and it's only in these very narrow bands.

So you asked: What should we do?

ROSE: Right.

THE PRESIDENT: What I've said is, is that what is a legitimate concern -- a legitimate critique -- is that because these are classified programs, even though we have all these systems of checks and balances, Congress is overseeing it, federal courts are overseeing it, despite all that, the public may not fully know and that can make the public kind of nervous, right, because they say, Obama says it's OK or Congress says it's OK, I don't know who this judge is. I'm nervous about it.

What I've asked the intelligence community to do is see how much of this we can declassify without further compromising the program, number one. And they are in that process of doing so now, so that everything that I'm describing to you today people -- the public, newspapers, et cetera -- can look at, because frankly, if people are making judgments just based on these slides that have been leaked, they're not getting the complete story.

Number two, I've stood up a privacy and civil liberties oversight board made up of independent citizens, including some fierce civil libertarians. I'll be meeting with them. And what I want to do is to set up and structure a national conversation, not only about these two programs, but also about the general problem of these big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities.

ROSE: Let me just ask you this: If someone leaks all this information about NSA surveillance, as Mr. Snowden did, did it cause national security damage to the United States and therefore, should he be prosecuted?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm not going to comment on prosecutions.


THE PRESIDENT: He -- the case has been referred to the DOJ for criminal investigation --

ROSE: And possible extradition.

THE PRESIDENT: And possible extradition. I will leave it up to them to answer those questions.

ROSE: So what's your fear -- what's your fear about this?

THE PRESIDENT: Look, we have to make decisions about how much classified information and how much covert activity we are willing to tolerate as a society. And you know, we could not have carried out the bin Laden raid if it was on the front page of the papers. I think everybody understands, right? So that would be one --

ROSE: Of course, that. But I don't understand what the relevance of that is --

THE PRESIDENT: -- one example. Well, no, no. The reason I'm saying that is that we're going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place, that they have enough information about how we operate that we know that their phone calls aren't being listened into, their text messages aren't being monitored, their e-mails aren't being read by some big brother somewhere. They've got to feel that confidence. And that it is not potentially subject to abuse, because there are sufficient checks and balances on it, while still preserving our capacity to act against folks who are trying to do us harm. And it's not just terrorists.

We already talked about cyber theft; we already talked about potentially critical infrastructure that could be compromised. You know, there were a handful of yokels up in New York who stole $45 million out of ATMs over the course of -- I think it was 18 hours.

And the public expects me and the Justice Department and others to protect them from those things -- to make sure that their bank accounts aren't being compromised, their medical records aren't being compromised. All that stuff requires the government to have some capacity to engage with the private sector and --

ROSE: And we ought to have a debate about it all.

THE PRESIDENT: So we've got to have a debate about it.

ROSE: OK. Let me turn to a number of things. Let me just, before I do, though, the notion that you have simply continued the policies of Bush-Cheney. Does it -- how does it make you feel?


ROSE: I mean, how do you assess? Because many people say, you know, you're Bush-Cheney light. And then people write columns saying, no, no, no. He's not that at all; he's tougher, I mean, in terms of drones, in terms of surveillance, in terms of many things --

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it --

ROSE: Guantanamo Bay.

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, well, look: I haven't yet closed Guantanamo. So one of the things you learn as president is, you know, what have you done for me lately? If you didn't get it done, then it's your problem. And I accept that; that's my job. So until I close Guantanamo Bay, they're right. I haven't closed Guantanamo Bay.

When it comes to --

ROSE: Drones?

THE PRESIDENT: When it comes to drones, I gave an entire speech on this. And what I have said is -- and this is absolutely true -- is that we have put in place a whole series of measures that are unprecedented and we will continue to do so. You know, we ended enhanced interrogation techniques; we ended some of the detention policies that had been in place that violated our values. There are a whole range of checks and balances that we put in place.

But I think it's fair to say that, you know, there are going to be folks on the left -- and you know, what amuses me is now folks on the right who were fine when it was a Republican president, but now, you know, Obama's coming in with the black helicopters --

ROSE: [chuckles] Politics makes strange bed fellows, doesn't it?

THE PRESIDENT: It does, which is -- you know, who are not yet going to be satisfied.

I've got to tell you, though, Charlie: Generally, I think this is a healthy thing, because it's a sign of maturity that this debate would not have taken place five years ago. And I welcome it; I really do, because I -- contrary to what I think some people think, the longer I'm in this job, the more I believe, on the one hand, that most folks in government are actually trying to do the right thing. They work really hard; they're really dedicated; they're --

ROSE: But you are frustrated?

THE PRESIDENT: But let me say this -- that's on the one hand. On the other hand, what I also believe is, you know, it's useful to have a bunch of critics out there who are checking government power and who are making sure that we're doing things right, so that if we've tripled checked how we're operating any one of these programs, let's go quadruple check it. And I'm comfortable with that and I'm glad to see that we are starting to do that.

The one thing people should understand about all these programs, though, is they have disrupted plots -- not just here in the United States, but overseas as well. And you know, you've got a guy like Najibullah Zazi, who was driving cross country trying to blow up a New York subway system. Now, we might have caught him some other way; we might have disrupted it, because a New York cop saw he was suspicious. Maybe he turned out to be incompetent and the bomb didn't go off. But at the margins, we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs. And then question becomes: Can we trust all the systems of government enough, as long as they're checking each other, that our privacy's not being abused that we are able to prevent some of the tragedies that unfortunately, there are people out there who are going to continue to try to -- try to strike against us.

ROSE: We've talked mostly about national security and talked about the responsibilities around the world. And you've certainly indicated by that last answer that the number one responsibility of a president is national security -- to keep the American people safe.


ROSE: Correct?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it is my number one priority, because if I don't get that right, obviously, we don't get anything right.

ROSE: Exactly. You've also --

THE PRESIDENT: I won't -- I will say, though, that I think that the biggest challenge we face right now, in addition to the ongoing challenge of national security, is having recovered from the worse recession since the Great Depression, having dug our way out, with the economy now growing, jobs being created, auto industry back, stock market back, housing recovering by about 10 percent in terms of prices, how do we now go back to the issue that led me to run for president in the first place, which is the fact that the economy's not working for everybody; that we have these structure problems that could lead to, you know, second-rate status if they continue --

ROSE: The level of debt and all that?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, here's what I would say: Number one, we've got to make sure that we have an education system that is meeting the challenge of the 21st century; number two, that we've got a great infrastructure; number three, that our lead in research and development continues; number four, that we are ensuring that we've got a tax code that is sensible and allows us to grow; and number five, in addition to deficits and a stable fiscal system, that we also have a country where the idea that anybody can make it if they work hard and that there are ladders of opportunity and a middle is growing, that that continues.

And you know, one of the biggest challenges that I see -- along with some things like climate change, by the way, that we haven't had time to talk about so far -- is the fact that we have recovered from the worst of the crisis, but the underlying problem which is growing inequality, wages and income stagnant or even going down in some cases for middle-class families, that trend line has continued. It's not unique to America; we're seeing it worldwide. It's partly because of globalization; partly because of technology. We've got to address that if we are going to continue to be the greatest nation on Earth. And that's the thing that I'm going to be focused on for the remainder of my presidency, along with the basics like making sure nobody blows us up.

ROSE: Some people would like to see you announce that you are reappointing Ben Bernanke as the chairman of the Fed.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think Ben Bernanke has done an outstanding job. Ben Bernanke's a little bit like Bob Mueller, the head of the FBI --

ROSE: Yes.

THE PRESIDENT: -- where he's already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to. But I think he's --

ROSE: But if he wanted to be reappointed, you would reappoint him?

THE PRESIDENT: He has been an outstanding partner, along with the White House, in helping us recover much stronger than, for example, our European partners, from what could have been an economic crisis of epic proportions.

ROSE: I'm at the end of my time. But I do take this opportunity to say, happy Father's Day. You're off to a recital by Sasha or Malia -- I'm not sure which one.

THE PRESIDENT: Sasha, yeah. She's the dancer of the family.

ROSE: And you have spoken well about fatherhood and what it means. And the absence of having the father, you know, has given you a sense of appreciation of what a father can mean to the life of children. And I thank you for taking time on this day to share a conversation about the country.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate it very much, Charlie. Thank you so much.

ROSE: Thank you. Thanks. Great to see you.

Related Images

Barack Obama, Interview with Charlie Rose on PBS "Charlie Rose" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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