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President Obama Speaking in Stockholm

Aired September 04, 2013 - 09:00   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: An intelligence operation that tries to improve our understanding of what's happening around the world. And in light of 9/11, a lot of energy was focused on improving our intelligence when it came to combating terrorism.

And what I can say with confidence is that when it comes to our domestic operations, the concerns that people have back home in the United States of America that we do not surveil the American people or persons within the United States. That there are a lot of checks and balances in place designed to avoid a surveillance state.

There have been times where the procedures, because these are human endeavors, have not worked the way they should and we had to tighten them up. And I think there are legitimate questions that have been raised about the fact that as technology advances and capabilities grow, it may be that the laws that are currently in place are not sufficient to guard against the dangers of us being able to track so much.

Now when it comes to intelligence gathering internationally, our focus is on counterterrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cyber security, you know, core national security interests of the United States.

But what is true is is that the United States has enormous capabilities when it comes to intelligence. You know, one way to think about it is in the same way that our military capabilities are significantly greater than many other countries. The same is true for our intelligence capabilities. So even though we may have the same goals, our means are significantly greater.

And I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we're not going around snooping at people's e-mails or listening to their phone calls. What we try to do is target very specifically areas of concern.

Having said that, what I've said domestically and what I say to international audiences is with changes in technology, with the growth of our capabilities, if our -- if our attitude is, because we can do it, we should go ahead and do it, then we may not be, you know, addressing some of the legitimate concerns and dangers that exist any time we're talking about intelligence gathering and surveillance.

So what I've asked my national security team to do, as well as independent persons who are well-known lawyers or civil libertarians or privacy experts to do, is to review everything that we're doing with the instructions to them that we have to balance the ends with the means and just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it.

And there may be situations in which we're gathering information just because we can that doesn't help us with our national security. But does raise questions in terms of whether we're tipping over into being too intrusive with respect to the -- you know, the interactions of other governments.

And that is something that we are currently reviewing carefully. We are consulting with the E.U. in this process. We are consulting with other countries in this process. And finding out from them what are their areas of specific concern and trying to align what we do in a way that, I think, alleviates some of the public concerns that people may have.

But this is always going to be a -- some -- there's going to be some balancing that takes place on these issues. You know, some of -- some of the folks who have been most greatly offended publicly, we know privately engage in the same activities directed at us, or use information that we've obtained to protect their people.

And we recognize that. But I think all of us have to take a very thoughtful approach to this problem. And I'm the first one to acknowledge that given advances to technology and the fact that so much of our information flow today is through the Internet, through wireless, that the risks of abuse are greater than they have been in the past.

Now, with respect to Sweden, you know, I haven't had a chance to wander around Stockholm as much as I would like. It is a gorgeous country. What I know about Sweden I think offers us some good lessons.

Number one, the work you've done on energy, I think, is something that the United States can and will learn from because every country in the world right now has to recognize that if we're going to continue to grow, improve our standard of living while maintaining a sustainable planet, then we're going to have to change our patterns of energy use. And Sweden, I think, is far ahead of many other countries.

Sweden also has been able to have a robust market economy while recognizing that there is some investments in education or infrastructure or research that are important and there's no contradiction between making public investments and being a firm believer in free markets. And that's a debate and a discussion that we often have in the United States.

You know, I have to say that if I were here in Europe, I'd probably be considered right in the middle, maybe center or left, maybe center- right, depending on the country. In the United States, sometimes the names I'm called are quite different.

And I think a third observation and final observation I'd make is, though, I know that I'm sure Fredrik doesn't feel this, as he's engaging in difficult debates here, I do get a sense that the politics in Sweden right now involve both the ruling party and the opposition engaged in a respectful and rational debate that's based on facts and issues.

And I think that kind of recognition that people can have political differences, but we're all trying to achieve the same goals. But that's -- that's something that Swedes should be proud of and should try to maintain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The first question from the American press goes to Steve Holland of Reuters.

STEVE HOLLAND, REUTERS: Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, sir. Have you made up your mind whether to take action against Syria, whether or not you have a congressional resolution approved? Is a strike needed in order to preserve your credibility for when you set these sort of red lines? And were you able to enlist the support of the prime minister here for support in Syria?

OBAMA: Let me unpack the question. First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war.

Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the "Syria Accountability Act" that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.

And so when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what's happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There's a reason for it. That's point number one.

Point number two, my credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. And when those videos first broke and you saw images of over 400 children subjected to gas, everybody expressed outrage.

How can this happen in this modern world? Well, it happened because a government chose to deploy these deadly weapons on civilian populations. And so the question is, how credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that has to be observed? The question is, how credible is Congress when it passes a treaty saying we have to forbid the use of chemical weapons.

And I do think that we have to act. Because if we don't, we are effectively saying that even though we may condemn it and issue resolutions and so forth and so on, somebody who is not shamed by resolutions can continue to act with impunity. And those international norms begin to erode.

And other despots and authoritarian regimes can start looking and say, that's something we can get away with. And that then calls into questions other international norms and laws of war, and whether those are going to be enforced.

So, as I told the prime minister, I am very respectful of the U.N. investigators who went in at great danger to try to gather evidence about what happened. We want more information, not less. But when I said that I have high confidence that chemical weapons were used and that the Assad government, through their chain of command, ordered their use, that was based on both public sourcing, intercepts, evidence that we feel very confident about, including samples that had been tested showing sarin from individuals who were there.

And I'm very mindful of the fact that around the world and here in Europe, in particular, there are still memories of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction accusations and people being concerned about how accurate this information is.

Keep in mind, I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq and am not interested in repeating mistakes of us basing decisions on faulty intelligence. But having done a thorough investigation of the information that is currently available, I can say with high confidence that chemical weapon were used.

And by the way, Iran doesn't deny it, even Syria doesn't actually deny that they were used and that is what the U.N. investigators are supposed to be determining. And, frankly, nobody is really disputing the chemical weapons were used.

The only remaining dispute is who used them, which is outside the parameters of the U.N. investigation. So the U.N. investigation will not be able to answer that preliminarily. They're not supposed to. But what we know is, is that the opposition doesn't have the capability to deliver weapons on this scale.

These weapons are in Assad's possession. We have intercepts indicating people in the chain of command both before and after the attacks with knowledge of these attacks. We can show that the rockets that delivered these chemical weapons went from areas controlled by Assad into these areas where the opposition was lodged. And the accumulation of evidence gives us high confidence that Assad carried this out.

And, so, the question is, after we've gone through all this, are we going to try to find a reason not to act? And if that's the case, then I think the world community should admit it. Because you can always find a reason not to act. This is a complicated, difficult situation.

And an initial response will not solve the underlying tragedy of the civil war in Syria. As Fredrik mentioned, that will be solved through eventually a political transition. But we can send a very clear, strong message against the prohibition or in favor of the prohibition against using chemical weapons.

We can change Assad's calculus about using them again. We can degrade his capabilities so that he does not use them again.

And so, what I'm talking about is an action that is limited in time and in scope, targeted at the specific task of degrading his capabilities, and deterring the use of those weapons, again. And in the meantime, we will continue to engage the international community in trying to find a solution to the underlying problems, which brings me to the last question. And that is what happens if Congress doesn't approve it?

I believe that Congress will approve it. I believe Congress will approve it because I think America recognizes that as difficult as it is to take any military action, even one as limited as we're talking about, even one with boots on the ground, that's a sober decision.

But I think America also recognizes that if the international community fails to maintain certain norms, standards, laws, governing how countries interact and how people are treated, that over time this world becomes less safe. It becomes more dangerous not only for those people who are subjected to these horrible crimes, but to all of humanity. We've seen that happen again and again in our history.

And the people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act. And I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture. I think it's very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the president and Congress does it together.

As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America's national security. I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress. But I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise. I think it's important to have Congress' support on it.

MODERATOR: And the next Swedish question goes to Swedish National Television.

REPORTER: Mr. President, you've given very eloquent talks about the moral force of nonviolence. I was wondering, could you describe the dilemma to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner and getting ready to attack Syria?

And, also, in what way did the talk that you had today with Prime Minister Reinfeldt move the world a step closer to resolving the climate crisis?

OBAMA: I will refer you to the speech that I made when I received the Nobel Prize and I think I started the speech by saying that compared to previous recipients, I was certainly unworthy. But what I also described was the challenge that all of us face when we believe in peace, but we confront a world that is full of violence and occasional evil. And the question then becomes, what are our responsibilities?

So, I've made every effort to end the war in Iraq, to wind down the war in Afghanistan, to strengthen our commitment to multilateral action, to promote diplomacy as the solution to problems. The question, though, that all of us face, not just me -- our citizens face, not just political leaders -- is at what point do we say we need to confront actions that are violating our common humanity? And I would argue that when I see 400 children subjected to gas or 1,400 innocent civilians dying senselessly in an environment in which you already have tens of thousands dying, and we have the opportunity to take some action that is meaningful, even if it doesn't solve the entire problem may at least mitigate this particular problem. Then, the moral thing to do is not to stand by and do nothing.

But it's difficult. This is the part of my job that I find most challenging every single day. I would much rather spend my time talking about how every 3 and 4 year old gets a good education, than I would spending time thinking about how I can prevent 3 and 4 year olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas.

Unfortunately, that's sometimes the decisions that I'm confronted with as president of the United States and, frankly, as president of the United States, I can't avoid those questions because as much -- as much as we are criticized, when bad stuff happens around the world, the first question is, what is the United States going to do about it?

That's true in every issue. It's true in Libya. It's true in Rwanda. It's true in Sierra Leone. It's now true in Syria. That's part of the deal.

What was the second question?

What -- I think we have great opportunities. I think there's a good chance for Fredrik to talk about our shared views here because we have, I think, a joint belief that developed countries have to make progress, but we have to have an international framework to address where the increases and the missions are now occurring.

FREDRIK REINFELDT, SWEDEN PRIME MINISTER: OK. I totally agree with that. I think it's been a very interesting development after Copenhagen. I learned to -- we were both present in Copenhagen but we were saying that U.S. had the highest admissions in the world and that China was catching up.

Now, only a few years later we have a situation where China has now doubled the emissions that we have in the U.S. This is actually reshaping the situation when it comes to climate protection.

We are both responsible for lowering our emissions and we're doing so. But we must also face the fact that we raise and have a situation by 25 percent of the global emissions is from European Union and the United States together. So, the world can't say, "solve it," pointing at the quarter. They need to take in the 75 percent of the European Union and the United States.

That is our problem. We want to deal with this, but it has to be a global answer.

MODERATOR: Final question goes to Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News.

REPORTER: Thank you.

Mr. President, tomorrow, you'll see President Putin at the G-20 with Russia and U.S. relations seriously strained. Do you see value in him dropping opposition to Syrian strike, or are you -- your efforts now aimed at excluding Russia from the decision? And looking back at your hopes for a reset, do you believe you have overestimated what you could change or Mr. Putin changed the rules midway?

If you will indulge me, I have one more, but it's all related.

OBAMA: I will indulge you --

REPORTER: Thank you.

OBAMA: -- to let you ask the question. I may not answer but go ahead.

REPORTER: Could you take us behind the scenes on that 45-minute walk around the south lawn where you changed your mind and decided to take this before Congress?

Mr. Prime Minister --

OBAMA: Oh, goodness. Margaret, you're really pressing things now. This is question number four now.

REPORTER: This is for the prime minister.

You have expressed some doubts about military action in Syria and I'm wondering if you could be a little more specific about what you're concerned -- the consequences may be -- and whether you believe President Putin has any -- shares any of the burden of the responsibility for Mr. Assad's actions?

Thank you.

OBAMA: OK. I'm going to try to remember all this.

First of all, the reset in the Russian relationship was not done on a whim. There were specific U.S. interests that I believed we could pursue with Russia. Where interests overlapped that would help us both on our long-term national security and our economy.

And we succeeded. We succeeded in passing a new START treaty that reduced nuclear stockpiles for both the United States and Russia.

Russia joined the WTO, which bound them to a set of international rules governing trade, which I think ultimately will be good for the Russian economy, but is also good for its trading partners and potential companies that are investing in Russia, that includes U.S. companies.

We work together on counterterrorism issues. They have provided us significant assistance in supplying our troops in Afghanistan. There were a whole host of outcomes from that reset that were valuable to the United States.

Now, there's no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we've kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. And where our interests overlap, we should pursue common action. Where we've got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences, but not sugar coat them.

One area where we've got a significant difference right now is the situation in Syria. Russia has a long-standing relationship with the Assad regime. And as a consequence, it has been very difficult to get Russia working through the Security Council to acknowledge some of the terrible behavior of the Assad regime and to try to push towards the kind of political transition that's needed in order to stabilize Syria.

And I've said to Mr. Putin directly and I continue to believe that even if you have great concerns about elements in the opposition, and we've got some concerns about certain elements of the opposition, like al Nusra. And even if you're concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria and we're concerned about the territorial integrity of Syria.

If you, in fact, want to end the violence and slaughter inside of Syria, then you're going to have to have a political transition, because it is not possible for Mr. Assad to regain legitimacy in a country where he's killed tens of thousands of his own people. That will not happen.

So far, at least, Mr. Putin has rejected that logic. As far as security action, Security Council action, we have gone repeatedly to the Security Council for even the most modest of resolutions condemning some of the actions that have taken place there. And it has been resisted by Russia.

And, you know, do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I'm always hopeful. And I will continue to engage him because I think that international action would be much more effective. And, ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach.