WASHINGTON -- President Obama defended his authorization of recently revealed domestic and international surveillance programs in comments broadcast Monday night but rejected the suggestion that his policies were basically a warmed-over version of those of the last White House.
"Some people say, 'Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney,' " Mr. Obama told Charlie Rose on his PBS interview show. "Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yeah, you know, he took it all lock, stock and barrel.' My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?"
In perhaps his most expansive explanation of his surveillance policies since leaked documents exposed a pair of secret programs, Mr. Obama said he had made important changes from the policies of George W. Bush, including making sure that surveillance was approved by Congress and a secret foreign intelligence court. "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," he said.
Yet like Mr. Cheney, who appeared on "Fox News Sunday" over the weekend, Mr. Obama defended the effectiveness of surveillance programs in heading off threats to the United States. "The one thing people should understand about all these programs, though, is they have disrupted plots, not just here in the United States but overseas as well," he said. He added that while other factors were at work, "we are increasing our chances of preventing a catastrophe like that through these programs."
The White House hoped to use the interview to calm concerns about the surveillance programs, and Mr. Obama emphasized that intelligence agencies were not listening in on Americans' telephone calls without court orders. A new CNN/ORC International poll suggested that many Americans were uncomfortable with his handling of surveillance, and in the wake of several recent controversies, his approval rating had slipped to 45 percent from 53 percent.
Mr. Obama said he had directed intelligence agencies to examine whether more information about the surveillance programs could be declassified to satisfy Americans that they were conducted within legal bounds and were far less intrusive into personal privacy than critics assume. He said that the intelligence agencies were only collecting data like telephone numbers called and the duration of calls. An Internet monitoring program, he added, was directed at foreigners with ties to terrorism, cyberhacking and the spread of dangerous weapons or technology.
In his first public remarks about his shift on Syria, Mr. Obama said he wanted to bolster the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad "so there's a counterweight that can potentially lead to political negotiations." But he rejected more assertive measures like establishing a no-fly zone or a humanitarian corridor to help refugees. He said that "90 percent of the deaths" had not been caused by airstrikes and warned against anything that would "slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments."
Mr. Obama said it was important to understand "if you set up a no-fly zone, that you may not be actually solving the problem on the zone."
"Or if you set up a humanitarian corridor, are you in fact committed not only to stopping aircraft from going that corridor but also missiles?" he continued. "And if so, does that mean that you then have to take out the armaments in Damascus and are you prepared then to bomb Damascus? And what happens if there's civilian casualties?"
Noting extensive deliberations in the Situation Room, he added, "Unless you've been involved in those conversations, then it's kind of hard for you to understand that the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East."
He rejected critics who said he should have intervened more aggressively and earlier in a civil war that has cost more than 90,000 lives. "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," he said.
He said that his team "had to sort out and figure out exactly who it is that is in the opposition" and that arming the rebels "willy-nilly is not a good recipe for meeting American interests over the long term," given that some of the most effective fighters are with Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Mr. Obama also reached out to Iran's newly elected president, holding out hope for a rapprochement that would prevent the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons and ultimately "normalize the relationship between Iran and the world."
Mr. Obama said the election of Hassan Rowhani over a field of more hard-line candidates signaled that the Iranian public was eager to end its international isolation and could presage a new chapter in the fitful negotiations over the Islamic republic's nuclear program. But he cautioned that the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was still calling the shots.
"Clearly you have a hunger within Iran to engage with the international community in a more positive way," Mr. Obama said. "I do think that there's a possibility that they decide, the Iranians decide to take us up on our offer to engage in a more serious, substantive way."
Mr. Obama also addressed speculation about whether Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, would remain beyond Jan. 31, 2014, when his term expires.
"Ben Bernanke's done an outstanding job," Mr. Obama said about nominating him to another term. "He's already stayed a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to."
Mr. Bernanke, who convenes a two-day policy meeting of the Fed on Tuesday, is in his second four-year term.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.