President Obama on Tuesday defended the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs in a wide-ranging interview on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," arguing that the agency doesn’t target U.S. civilians.
Obama called the surveillance programs “a critical component to counterterrorism,” but acknowledged that they’ve “raised a lot of questions for people.”
The NSA’s surveillance programs, first uncovered when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden divulged details to The Guardian, have been the focus of a renewed debate since a weekend terror threat had top administration officials huddling at the White House and provoked the State Department to close more than 20 diplomatic posts and issue a worldwide travel alert.
A handful of lawmakers — most of them longtime national security hawks — took to the Sunday news shows to declare the NSA programs a success and credit the controversial surveillance methods as directly responsible for uncovering a potential terrorist attack.
Other lawmakers have disputed that claim and warn that the programs are a government intrusion on civil liberties and don’t make the country any safer.
Obama addressed the weekend terror threat for the first time during the Tuesday interview, telling Leno that U.S. citizens could still take vacations, but urged they do so in a “prudent way” by checking for State Department updates before traveling.
"The odds of dying in a terrorist attack are a lot lower than they are of dying in a car accident, unfortunately,” Obama said.
The State Department extended the closure of 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East and North Africa through next weekend. The president said U.S. officials were not overreacting to the potential terror threat.
The president declined to wade into the debate over what to make of Snowden. Critics and supporters of the NSA programs have argued over whether he’s a hero or a traitor for shedding light on the secret government programs.
“We don’t know exactly what he did, except what he said on the Internet, and it's important for me not to judge,” Obama said.
The Russian government granted temporary asylum to Snowden last week. The move infuriated the administration and led to calls from top lawmakers, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), for Obama to withdraw from his planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow ahead of the G-20 Summit.
Schumer also urged U.S. allies to push to have the summit moved out of St. Petersburg.
Obama told Leno he was disappointed with the Russian government’s decision, but pointed to areas of recent cooperation, like the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, as evidence the countries can still cooperate on some important issues.
"There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin: That’s the past.”
Obama said he was still planning on attending the G-20 in St. Petersburg.
The president was also critical of a new law in Russia banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," saying that he has "no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."
“I’ve been very clear when it comes to universal rights, people’s basic freedoms," Obama added.
Obama, however, said he did not think it would impact the Olympics next year in Russia.
"I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work," he said. “I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently."
— This report was updated at 10:50 p.m.