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Responding to criticism from many corners, President Obama today mapped out some changes to the government’s surveillance practices — practices that saw daylight when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed them in a huge data dump.
One of those voices of criticism belongs to Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. He’s also chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Capitol Hill.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.
And we've been getting reaction to President Obama's lengthy speech today, both defending U.S. surveillance and the NSA and mapping out changes to respond to concerns about privacy. Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democrat of Vermont, was a skeptic going into the speech. He joins us now. Senator, welcome.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: Thank you. It's good to be with you.
YOUNG: Good to speak with you. And you've said the Founding Fathers would be astounded to see what the NSA has been doing. You want to end the bulk collection of these phone metadata. Today, the president said he would take that phone metadata out of the government's hands, store it somewhere else, also have a privacy advocate on the secret FISA court in some situations. Did he address your privacy concerns?
LEAHY: Well, I've discussed it more a great deal with the president, and he did address some. One, he's right, of course, in pointing out that a country like ours, we're always going to face threats from abroad. We actually, as we saw in Oklahoma City bombing, face threats from inside our country. But at the same time, we have stayed a free and democratic nation because we respect our privacy. What has worried me is that there's this much data being kept by the government. The ability to abuse it for any administration, whether it's this one, the next one, the one after, is enormous. You can only imagine what would've happened if somebody like J. Edgar Hoover had had availability of this.
So he's taken a step on the so-called national security letters - to be able to remove the gag order on them. I think that's a positive step forward. I think he took a partial step forward on the secret court in having the ability to bring in an outside advocate. I think a permanent position will be a lot better because they would have the experience and the ability to work on it.
And on the question of where this is stored, that is not as important as what is stored and what it's used for. We know they've talked about the NSA storing it and all the safeguards. The safeguards weren't good enough to stop a subcontractor from stealing all what they had. And even to this day, they don't know everything that was stolen.
YOUNG: Well, do you really think - and Rand Paul has said the same thing. He thinks that the bulk collection should be done away with entirely. But is that possible? We hear that every president who steps into office gets these frightening morning reports, and the president referred to people who work at the NSA whose actions are second-guessed, successes unreported, failure can be catastrophic. The sense it's a tool that no one is likely to want to give up because of the criticism that would come down the road.
LEAHY: Well, I think what happens is if we have all these abilities to do all these things, sometimes they can give you a false sense of security. For example, if they say, would you want another 9/11? Well, we had all the information we needed to stop 9/11. It's just they didn't - the FBI didn't cooperate with the CIA and so forth. They didn't connect the dots. In fact, we found out after that they had material that had never been translated. It could've been very helpful. I think that we get a false sense of security that if we're collecting every single thing, we'll someday be able to stop things.
And I so go back to when Edward Snowden stole all the things he did. They still don't know all that he stole. So I question what kind of controls. Do we need intelligence agencies? Of course. Do we have the ability under corporate circumstances to be able to listen to people abroad or elsewhere? Of course.
YOUNG: Well, Senator, I'm going to have to...
LEAHY: And we - should we have to be able to go into everybody all the time? No.
YOUNG: Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont with his first thoughts on the president's speech today. Thanks so much.
LEAHY: You're quite welcome.
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.