Return to Transcripts main page


Obama Orders NSA Changes; U.S. Not Spying On Ordinary People; Interview with Sen. Sanders; California Wildfire

Aired January 17, 2014 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, too far, not far enough. Reaction pouring in after President Obama lays out his plans to change the way the United States government spies.

Also right now, California declares a drought emergency. Some cities see annual rain amounts 30 to 40 inches below normal. The danger is growing as wildfires spread.

And right now with an AARP card and a dance party, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, marks the big 50.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, reporting from Washington. We start with President Obama's big announcement of sweeping changes to American surveillance. In his highly anticipated speech just a little while ago, he defended the vault collection of telephone records but also announced that the program needs to be overhauled with changes to how and why those records are accessed.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have approved a new presidential directive for our signals intelligence activities, both at home and abroad. This guidance will strengthen executive branch oversight of our intelligence activities. It will ensure that we take into account our security requirements, but also our alliances, our trade and investment relationships, including the concerns of American companies, and our commitment to privacy and basic liberties. And we will review decisions about intelligence priorities and sensitive targets on an annual basis so that our actions are regularly scrutinized by my senior national security team.


BLITZER: Among the specifics, our strengthening executive branch oversight of surveillance activities also designating independent privacy advocates to oversee some aspects, new restrictions on collection of information from Americans, and foreign citizens. He also promised to stop monitoring heads of state of American friends and allies. And he announced that a new White House official will be designated to implement new privacy safeguards.

Let's talk about what we just heard from the president, the surveillance reforms that he outlined. Joining us, the Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders. He's the independent senator from Vermont. Senator, thanks very much for coming in. SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: My pleasure.

BLITZER: You and I have discussed this on several occasions over the past several months. At one point, you said strong, new limits are needed to protect the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. Did the president go far enough today, in your opinion?

SANDERS: Wolf, the devil is going to be in the details. I think in a very significant way, the president began the conversation on what is a very difficult issue and a complicated issue. It's difficult because everybody wants to see us do all we can to protect the American people from terrorism. It is complicated because every single day technology changes.

And the question of how we protect the American people without undermining our privacy rights and our constitutional rights is a huge issue. I'm going to be having a town meeting in Montpellier, Vermont on February 1st. I would hope that millions of people become engaged in this enormously important issue. I think the president started that conversation. We've got a long way to go.

BLITZER: You have said, and I'm quoting you, once again, that the current NSA surveillance program, in your words, represents a clear violation of the fourth amendment ban on unreasonable searches. So what you heard today, the outlines of some reforms, are you satisfied?

SANDERS: I think it's a start. To my mind, when every telephone call made by every single American is on file in the NSA, that is clearly, to my mind, a violation of the fourth amendment to the United States constitution. No question in my mind. And that has got to end. The president (INAUDIBLE) --

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt you -- let me interrupt you, senator. The president says he wants to continue doing that but not storing it any longer over at the NSA. The companies that have all these records, they don't want to store it for a variety of legal and other privacy considerations. So, who is going to store all these records? Who would be an appropriate source or person or institution --

SANDERS: Well, it's --

BLITZER: -- to do such a thing?

SANDERS: -- well, Wolf, it's not a question. You're asking who should store it. The question is whether they should be stored. It's probably --

BLITZER: The president says that they should be stored.

SANDERS: -- the better question.

BLITZER: The president says, by the end of March, he wants a new formula to store all that all that information, so in case there is some sort of threat of a terrorist operation, they can sort of connect the dots and find out who might be responsible. SANDERS: Again, the devil is in the details but I don't agree with the overall position of the president on that issue. Again, I do not think it is -- that the Constitution of the United States supports the belief that every call made by every American, 99.99 percent have -- who have nothing to do with terrorism should be kept on file.

Look, you know, let me tell you what I'm really am concerned about in this whole business, Wolf. And it's a very subtle thing. There are writers' organizations who say, you know what? When we write stuff on the internet, we are now fearful of what we're putting on -- we don't put everything that we're thinking.

You've got kids in America who walk into a library and are saying, you know, shall I get that biography of Osama Bin Laden? Should I write that report or is somebody going to think I am involved in terrorist activity? What we want as a nation is our young people and all of our people to be brave. You want to sign a petition, sign a petition, without worrying the government is going to keep file on you. You want to investigate an issue, you want to research your paper, we want an inquisitive, curious people. That's what freedom is about.

And I think all of this stuff has a very significant, chilling impact on the willingness of the American people to be thinking about issues, to be writing about issues, to be talking about issues. That is my fear.

BLITZER: I'll ask you a question I asked Senator Rand Paul, your colleague, the Republican senator from Kentucky a little while ago. Let's say the NSA determines a known terrorist suspect in some country, whether Yemen or Somalia or Afghanistan or some place, is making a phone call to someone in Burlington, Vermont for example. Do you want the NSA to check out who that individual is why this known terrorist suspect is making a phone call to an American in Vermont?

SANDERS: Yes. In other words, look, where there is reason to believe that somebody may be involved in a terrorist attack, I want our government to do everything that it can to protect the American people. But what I do not want are files being kept on the 99.99 percent of Americans who have nothing to do with terrorism.

BLITZER: So, how do you bridge that gap? How do you --

SANDERS: Well, that --

BLITZER: -- protect national security on the one hand and prevent another 911, while on the other hand making sure that Americans' privacy is protected?

SANDERS: Well, that is the -- that is the question. And let me -- let me add to that question by saying that that technology is changing every day. And think about what technology will be like in 10 years from now. And that is why we need a constant discussion and debate on this issue. My own view is that, at this point, we have gone too far in attacking the privacy rights of the American people. But you're asking the right question. And there is no simple answer. And that answer will change 10 years from now. We need a massive conversation on the parts of the American people to say how do we protect ourselves from folks who we know want to hurt us but do it in a way that maintenance us as a free society. Not an easy they think. President started this discussion. I would go further than the president in terms of protecting privacy rights. But this is an issue that Congress has got to embrace. It has to move up the totem pole in terms of important issues that we discuss.

BLITZER: One final quick question, if you can give me a quick answer. You raised a sensitive subject the other day whether or not the NSA is spying on members of Congress like yourself, senators and representatives. You've gotten some answers from them. Are they satisfactory?

SANDERS: Well, not really. I mean, what we -- what we have been told by the NSA in a response to a media inquiry is that all of the phone calls that members of Congress make are kept in the same files that every American. And the danger there is -- and I'm concerned about all Americans. The dangers about members of Congress is, it is just -- when you have that information, Wolf, it is easy to engage, if you have a rogue operator, unscrupulous president, you could start blackmailing members of Congress, impact public policy, impact elections.

BLITZER: And you earlier -- in an earlier conversation we had, you recalled Richard M. Nixon and what potentially could be done along those lines. All right, senator, you want to make a final point?

SANDERS: Well, yes, and I want people to think if Nixon had the resources and the technology that now exists, think of what he would have done.

BLITZER: Bernie Sanders is the independent senator from the state of Vermont. He caucuses with the Democrats, as all of our viewers know. Always good to have you here on CNN. Thank you, senator.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Up next, we'll get more reaction, more analysis of the president's surveillance reform proposals. Gloria Borger, Peter Berg and Jim Sciutto, they're all standing by. They will weigh in.


BLITZER: Changes to the way the NSA operates, that's what President Obama ordered just a little while ago. Those changes include not spying on friendly heads of state. Watch this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security. And we take their privacy concerns into account in our policies and procedures. This applies to foreign leaders as well. Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies. And I've instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts, to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust going forward.


BLITZER: All right. Let's talk about what we just heard from the president. Those proposed changes and more. Joining us, our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto, our National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger. So, people -- some people are going to say he went far enough, others are going to say he didn't go far enough. What's the immediate response that you're hearing?

GLORIA BORGER, CNNCHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Both of those responses. And I -- you know, I would also have to say that this is sort of what we have come to expect from the president who comes out there and says, I understand this is a real problem, people have to trust their intelligence agencies to do the right thing. I understand we need a balance between liberty and our national security. But -- and I don't want to hold all of this metadata, but, by the way, I'm going to ask somebody else for the decision about just what we do with all of this large pile of information that we collect.

So, he raised all the problems and it was a great speech that way. I think he did some things by executive order but he did leave a lot of these decisions up to Congress. And as we all know, Congress can't decide what day of the week it is. So, I think there are a lot of question marks out there.

BLITZER: Peter, let me play another clip that sort of jumped out at me in the president's remarks. It's a sensitive subject, a subject you know well. Watch this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- that the program grew out of a desire to address a gap identified after 911. One of the 911 hijackers, Khalid Al Mendar, made a phone call from San Diego to a known al Qaeda safe house in Yemen. NSA saw that call but it could not see that the call was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program, under section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.


BLITZER: All right. So when you heard that, Peter, you're an expert on the subject, what did you think?

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: You know, the real problem in this case was this Khalid al Mendar, the person the president referred to, was known to be in this country by the CIA. And the real problem was not that the NSA wasn't, you know, miss his phone call. The real problem was the CIA didn't tell the FBI and the State Department -


BERGEN: Hey, this guy is in the country. He got a visa to be here. He arrived here. And he was living openly. His name was listed in the San Diego phone book. So this is really a case where information sharing within the government would have actually cracked the case. Not some vast information collection program.

BLITZER: So you think the president, though, did he make the case why they came up with this bulk collection of all these phone numbers, all these phone calls, the duration of the calls, to prevent another 9/11?

BERGEN: I don't think that case was made because I think it's not - you can't -- it's a case that can't be made. I mean the facts show that only one very minor terrorist activity has been stopped by that program.

BLITZER: So far.

BERGEN: So far.

BLITZER: That doesn't mean that others can't be stopped down the road.

BERGEN: Yes, it doesn't, but the fact is, we've now, you know, we're 13 years after 9/11. If you can only point to one very minor case, you know, it's hard to make the defense you're preventing big terrorist attacks with this program.

BLITZER: Jim, as you listened to the president, what did you think?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's interesting on that point. There's a very interesting moment last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings when the panel, the president's own intelligence reform panel, was asked that very same question, you know, did this -- would this prevent the next 9/11? And they said, well, no. And even going back to 9/11, it was about information sharing. It was not about the existence of the program.

But they did go on to say -- and also they did not claim that, up to this point, that this program has prevented any terror attacks. They can't - they can't make that connection. But they did say it might some day in the future. And they make the point -- you know, we often talk about terrorists only have to be once. They made the point that a program like this only has to be successful once to be justified.

But, you know, there are some who aren't satisfied with that argument. Because you remember, when this program was first revealed, there was a lot of talk in the administration about 50-some-odd plots. Do you remember that figure?


SCIUTTO: When's the last time you heard that figure? BORGER: You haven't. And I remembered the president himself talking about that -


BORGER: When this program was first revealed.

You know, you have a president who ran for office as somebody who was very, very skeptical of this surveillance state. Now he's presiding over the surveillance state and he's clearly trying to find his own footing on this -


BORGER: And trying to find a way to kind of balance it all. And I think he's having some difficulty. And I also believe that there's disagreement inside the administration -

SCIUTTO: No question.

BORGER: About just how far to go on this. And I think that the president probably stopped short of where some people internally wanted him to go.

BLITZER: He mentioned Edward Snowden twice, by name, Peter, in his remarks. Would the president be making these proposals today if Edward Snowden had never leaked all those documents?

BERGEN: Of course not. Simple. I mean, we would be having - we wouldn't be sitting around this table, not -- you know, there's -- without these revelations, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

BLITZER: So where does that put Edward Snowden in this conversation?

BERGEN: Well, Snowden's since -

BLITZER: An important dialogue we're having in the United States.

BERGEN: Well, Snowden broke the law. But what he did may in part have some public interest benefit.

BLITZER: Jim, you've spoken to world leaders and you've traveled all over the world. Do you think any of them, including close friend and allies of the United States, really believe the United States is going to stop listening in to their conversations?

SCIUTTO: Well, I think at least on their conversations, but not their aides and their vice presidents. He talks about dozens of world leaders here. And he made the point that, hey, listen, if I want to hear what Angela Merkel want to - thinks, I'm going to call her up on the phone.

BLITZER: There is a big loophole in there that they -- they have it open if they want to do it.

SCIUTTO: There's an enormous loophole. BORGER: (INAUDIBLE).

SCIUTTO: And he also made the point very firmly saying, hey, you know, we have the most capabilities and I'm not going to apologize for that, you know, and I'm not going to rein it in. He said we're not going to do unilateral disarmament on this, because we know others are doing similar kinds of spying.

BLITZER: I was fascinated when he said - and, Peter, you'll appreciate this, Gloria, you, as well, when he said, you go into the White House situation room, there's a reason you can't bring a cell phone or a Blackberry or an iPhone in there because there's potential trouble. If --

BORGER: Unless you're in homeland, in which case they did bring their Blackberries into the situation room.

BERGEN: Or indeed any American government building of any note. You can't bring, you know, phones in.

BLITZER: Technology is exploding. You want to make a final point.

SCIUTTO: Yes, I was just going to make a point that this was, you know, for the shortcomings that others will point out, a fairly remarkable program. We had a president speaking in public about the most secretive aspects of the most secretive intelligence gathering moment -- programs in the U.S. and making some fairly remarkable changes. You know, judicial review. One we haven't talked about a lot, extending to foreign nationals legal protections that only we, as American citizens, have. These are remarkable things that we would not have been talking about a few months ago.


BORGER: And can I just say one other thing, as we head - and I know it's early - but as we head into the presidential arena, you had Rand Paul on earlier today because he's talking -- you know, he doesn't like the surveillance state. You have other Republicans who are going to say, you know, the president is way too soft. And it's going to be a very --

BLITZER: It's going to be a good debate.

BORGER: It's going to be a corner stone of the presidential campaign, I believe.

BLITZER: All right, guys, good discussion. Thank you.

Other news we're following here today on CNN.

A fast-moving wildfire threatening more homes in southern California. Authorities say they know who's responsible for starting the fire and why it got out of control so fast.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: We're learning more about what started as a major wildfire in southern California. People accused of doing it. Authorities say three men in their 20s, one of them homeless, tossed pieces of paper into a campfire they set illegally. A gust of wind spread the red-hot embers sparking this 1,700-acre fire. Five homes have been destroyed, and the fire is only 30 percent contained right now. Chad Myers is tracking the flames for us over at the CNN Weather Center.

What a story this is, Chad. What do we know?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, the wind yesterday, Wolf, only blew about five or 10 miles per hour and the firefighters couldn't get a handle on that fire. There were four planes in the air, there were nine helicopters, there were hundreds of men and women on the ground and it just burned. I couldn't imagine what that fire would have looked like today or tomorrow with gusty winds. So lucky we got it on a day that the winds didn't blow that much.

California is in a severe drought. It just hasn't rained there for what seems like ever. In fact, parts of California have only picked up a half an inch of rain just in the past one month or two months alone. Some spots haven't picked up any. Severe drought, 90 percent of the state. So now we're talking about not just fires, we're talking about crops, we're talking about the wine crops, we're talking about the crops in the inland valleys, too, not getting any water with this.

Take a look at this number. Burbank, California, you picked up three inches of rain in the entire year of 2013. The old record, 3.55. Los Angeles, 3.6. You should have had in the teens, like 20 inches of rainfall. You had three. The driest on record for all of those cities in southern California.

Now up to northern California, where the fire danger is just as bad. Also we're not going to see a lot of snow pack up in the Sierra either. We're going to have really treacherous conditions up there if you're going to be trying to get any water later on in the year.

Oakland, California, should have had many inches of rain. They had four. The old record low is 10. They should have had somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 inches of rain. And Napa, California, less than 10 inches. They should have had 40. So we're talking about 10 to 15 percent of what the state should be getting and the Santa Ana winds blew across this windy area yesterday, blew down the mountain and into Glendora, into Azusa. And then even though it was only five to 10, Wolf, I'm not kidding you, if the wind was 20 to 25, this thing would be burning in parts of the city.

We are so lucky that this is not a big event right now. And I'll tell you what, every time the wind is going to blow and the fires are going to start in southern California and central and northern California this year, everybody's going to have to hold their breath. This could be a giant fire year coming up.

BLITZER: Yes, and just an hour or so ago, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, declared a drought emergency in the state. Thanks --

MYERS: Yes. It has to rain soon.

BLITZER: Yes, I hope it does. Thank you very much, Chad, for that report. We'll have much more on the fires in California coming up.

We're going to get the views now from the left and the right on President Obama's plans to try to rein in the NSA. The "Crossfire" host Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter, they're standing by live. They will weigh in on the president's speech. That debate and a lot more when we come back.