WASHINGTON - President Obama defended top-secret National Security Agency spying programs as legal in a lengthy interview Monday, and called them transparent - even though they are authorized in secret.
"It is transparent," Obama told PBS' Charlie Rose in an interview to be broadcast later Monday.
"That's why we set up the FISA court," he added, referring to the secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that authorizes two recently disclosed programs: one that gathers U.S. phone records and another that is designed to track the use of U.S.-based Internet servers by foreigners with possible links to terrorism.
The location of FISA courts is secret. The sessions are closed. The orders that result from hearings in which only government lawyers are present are classified.
"We're going to have to find ways where the public has an assurance that there are checks and balances in place ... that their phone calls aren't being listened into; their text messages aren't being monitored, their emails are not being read by some big brother somewhere," Obama said.
Obama is in Northern Ireland for a meeting of leaders of allied countries. As Obama arrived, the latest series of Guardian articles drawing on the leaks claims that British eavesdropping agency GCHQ repeatedly hacked into foreign diplomats' phones and emails with U.S. help, in an effort to get an edge in high-stakes negotiations.
Obama's announcement followed an online chat Monday by Edward Snowden, the man who says he leaked documents revealing the scope of the two programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers.
He accused members of Congress and administration officials of exaggerating their claims about the success of the data-gathering programs, including pointing to the arrest of would-be New York subway bomber Najibullah Zazi in 2009.
Snowden said Zazi could have been caught with narrower, targeted surveillance programs - a point Obama conceded in his Monday interview without mentioning Snowden.
"We might have caught him some other way," Obama said. "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."
Obama also told Rose he wanted to encourage a national debate on the balance between privacy and national security - a topic renewed by Snowden's disclosures.
Obama, who repeated earlier assertions that the programs were a legitimate counterterror tool and that they were completely noninvasive to people with no terror ties, said he has created a privacy and civil liberties oversight board.
"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 the general problem of data, big data sets, because this is not going to be restricted to government entities," he said.
Congressional leaders have said Snowden's disclosures have led terrorists to change their behavior, which may make them harder to stop - a charge Snowden discounted as an effort to silence him.
"The U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said.
He added that the government "immediately and predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home" by labeling him a traitor, and indicated he would not return to the U.S. voluntarily.