Obama's Bill Clinton Moment: 'We Don't Have a Domestic Spying Program'

The president's comments about the NSA on Jay Leno's show come down to semantics.
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"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." 

Just like slap bracelets and Furbies, that Bill Clinton quote pungently evokes the 1990s. The '90s are so hot right now! Maybe that explains what President Obama told Jay Leno last night during an appearance on The Tonight Show, because his answer was positively Clintonian. Here's a transcript, with emphasis added:

LENO: It's safe to say that we learned about these threats through the NSA intelligence program? Is that a fair assessment?

OBAMA: Well, this intelligence-gathering that we do is a critical component of counterterrorism. And obviously, with Mr. Snowden and the disclosures of classified information, this raised a lot of questions for people. But what I said as soon as it happened I continue to believe in, which is a lot of these programs were put in place before I came in. I had some skepticism, and I think we should have a healthy skepticism about what government is doing. I had the programs reviewed. We put in some additional safeguards to make sure that there's federal court oversight as well as congressional oversight, that there is no spying on Americans. 

We don't have a domestic spying program. What we do have are some mechanisms where we can track a phone number or an email address that we know is connected to some sort of terrorist threat. And that information is useful. But what I've said before I want to make sure I repeat, and that is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy. None of the revelations show that government has actually abused these powers, but they're pretty significant powers. 

Like Clinton's famous sidestep -- on which you can read Tim Noah here -- this is clever. It's not false if you use the words in a certain way and only in that way: If spying is narrowly construed to mean, say, warrantless wiretaps on Americans, then it's apparently true that there's no domestic spying program. But it's also not really true, and it suggests a sort of smirking contempt on the president's part for his interlocutors, and citizens. 

Contrast that with this Associated Press report:

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s national security team acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that, when investigating one suspected terrorist, it can read and store the phone records of millions of Americans.

Since it was revealed recently that the National Security Agency puts the phone records of every American into a database, the Obama administration has assured the nation that such records are rarely searched and, when they are, officials target only suspected international terrorists.

To sum up, there's no domestic spying program, but the government is at the very least reading and storing phone records of millions of Americans. Obama made a similar distinction during a July interview with Charlie Rose.

 "If you’re a U.S. person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it’s not targeting your emails unless it’s getting an individualized court order," he said. "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 is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place." (Social scientists have shown just how effective metadata can be in tracking people.)

It all depends on what the meaning of the word "spying" is -- which in Obama's terms seems to be whatever form of surveillance the government isn't involved in.

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David A. Graham

David Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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