By Justin Sink - 06/18/13 03:00 AM EDT
President Obama defended his administration’s domestic surveillance programs on Monday, arguing he has not abandoned freedom and is not just “Bush-Cheney lite.”
In an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, Obama argued it’s a “false choice” to suggest freedom must be sacrificed to achieve security, a phrasing that echoes comments he made on the campaign trail in 2008.
“To say there’s a tradeoff doesn’t mean somehow that we’ve abandoned freedom,” Obama said.
“Some people say ‘Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he’s, you know, Dick Cheney,” Obama said. “Dick Cheney sometimes says, ‘Yeah, you know? He took it all lock, stock and barrel.’
The president acknowledged that some critics see his administration as a watered-down version of the Bush administration, a perception underlined by his failure to close the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba.
“If you didn’t get it done, then it’s your problem. And I accept that, that’s my job. So until I close Guantánamo Bay, they’re right,” Obama said.
Still, the president argued that his concern for civil liberties exceeded that of his predecessor, even mocking his detractors as paranoid or hypocritical.
“There’s a whole range of checks and balances that we’ve put in place,” Obama said. “But I think it’s fair to say that [there are] going to be folks on the left, and what amuses me is now folks on the right who are fine when there’s a Republican president, but now, Obama’s coming in with the black helicopters.”
The interview underscored the defensive posture the White House has adopted in recent weeks, with the president arguing that the NSA spying is “transparent,” despite Rose noting that the independent court created to monitor the program served essentially as a rubber stamp.
The comments were Obama’s first remarks about programs dominating the news since June 7, when he offered an initial defense.
Polling has suggested that a majority of voters broadly accept the programs as a way to fight terrorism, though a new poll released Monday by CNN found significant damage to the president’s brand.
Half of those surveyed said they do not believe the president to be trustworthy, the first time a majority has held that opinion. Moreover, the president lost 10 points among independents and 17 points among those under 30, suggesting widespread unease about the programs.
Phil Singer, a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Obama’s task is complicated by other controversies, including the IRS’s admitted targeting of conservative political action groups and the Justice Department’s investigations into reporters.
Most of what Obama said in the new interview echoed his previous remarks, though his comparison of his own policies with President George W. Bush’s was largely new. It echoed arguments Democratic lawmakers have made over the past week.
Obama has come under fire from the left for attacking Bush’s policies as a candidate but then employing similar policies as president. Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old contractor who leaked the programs to the press, said he did so in part because of disappointment with Obama.
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said public perceptions that Obama has somehow shifted on the use of surveillance programs since entering the White House is a problem.
“The issue is especially challenging given that there had been an expectation going back to the 2008 campaign that the choice between civil liberties and national security was a false choice,” said Lehane. “He has the double burden of both trying to justify the policies and make clear how they are, in fact, consistent with the political brand he established as far back as 2008.”
The Rose interview appeared to be part of a new White House effort to more aggressively defend the NSA programs.
Strategists say the White House needs to regain control of the news cycle to prevent the slip in the polls from becoming a permanent downward spiral.
“Over the last several months, events have dictated this president instead of this president dictating events,” Singer said.
Snowden has become an unwitting ally of the president, however, by becoming the public face of the leaks. His disclosures have led members of both parties to declare him a traitor, and support on Capitol Hill for the programs has given Obama some cover.
On Monday, Snowden held a bombastic online chat through The Guardian — in which he declared he could be “living in a palace petting a phoenix by now” if he wished to trade information to China for asylum.
Obama offered no comment on Snowden in the interview with Rose, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
The interview also focused heavily on the president’s recent decision to arm rebel forces in Syria after confirmation the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons. In his first public comments, Obama defended his decision to hold back on sending arms.
“This argument that somehow 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,” Obama said, adding that “the way these situations get resolved is politically” rather than through rebel attacks.
Obama also dismissed calls from top Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to implement a no-fly zone in Syria. The president said the military could not be sure in establishing the zone that American forces wouldn’t accidentally target a chemical weapons site or kill civilians.
“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations, then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East,” Obama said.