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President Obama's Press Conference Continues

Aired December 20, 2013 - 14:30   ET


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, if I was interested in polling, I wouldn't have run for president. I was polling at 70 percent when I was in the U.S. Senate. I took this job to deliver for the American people, and I knew and will continue to know that there are going to be ups and downs on it.

You're right, the health care website problems were a source of great frustration. i think, in the last press conference that I adequately discussed my frustrations on those.

On the other hand, since that time I now have a couple million people, maybe more, who are going to have health care on January 1st. And that is a big deal. That's why I ran for this office.

And as long as I've got an opportunity every single day to make sure that in ways large and small I'm creating greater opportunity for people, more kids are able to go to school, get the education they need, more families are able to stabilize their finances, you now, the housing market is continuing to improve, people feel like their wages -- maybe -- are inching up a little bit, if those things are happening I'll take it.

And, I've said before, I (ph) run my last political race. So at this point my goal every single day is just to make sure that I can look back and say we're delivering something. Not everything, because this is a long haul.

Mark Dopenthal (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

One of the most significant events of this year was the revelation of the surveillance by the National Security Agency. As you review how to rein in the National Security Agency, a federal judge said that, for example, the government had failed to cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA's bulk metadata actually stopped an imminent attack.

Are you able to identify any specific examples when it did so? Are you convinced that the collection of that data is useful to national security to continue as it is?

OBAMA: Let me talk more broadly, and then I'll talk specifically about the program you're referring to.

As you know, the independent panel that I put together came back with a series of recommendations, 46 in total. I had an extensive meeting with them, down in the Situation Room, to review all the recommendations that they had made.

I want to thank them publicly, because I think they did an excellent job and took my charge very seriously, which is, I told them I want you to look from to bottom at what we're doing and evaluate whether or not the current structures that we have and the current programs that we have are properly addressing both our continuing need to keep ourself secure and to prevent terrorist attacks or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or other threats to the homeland, and, are we also making sure that we're taking seriously the rule of law and our concerns about privacy and civil liberties?

So what we're doing now is evaluating all the recommendations that have been made. Over the next several weeks, I'm going to assess, based on conversations not just with the intelligence community, but others in government and outside of government, how we might apply and incorporate their recommendations. And I'm going to make a pretty definitive statement about all of this in January, where I'll be able to say, here are the recommendations that we think make sense. Here are ones that we think are promising, but still need to be refined further. Here's how it relates to the work we're doing, not just -- not just internally, but also in partnership with other countries. And so I'm taking this very seriously, because I think, as I've said before, this is a debate that needed to be had.

One specific program, the 215 program, is the metadata, the bulk collection of phone numbers and exchanges that have taken place that has probably gotten the most attention, at least with respect to domestic audiences. And what I've said in the past continues to be the case, which is that the NSA, in executing this program, believed, based on experiences from 9/11, that it was important for us to be able to track, if there was a phone number of a known terrorist outside of the United States calling into the United States, where that call might have gone, and that having that data in one place and retained for a certain period of time allowed them to be confident in pursuing various investigations and terrorist threats.

And I think it's important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it's been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data.

But what is also clear is, from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse, and I think that's what the judge in the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA court, we're taking those into account. The question we're going to have to ask is, can we accomplish the same goals that this program is intended to accomplish in ways that give the public more confidence that, in fact, the NSA is doing what it's supposed to be doing.

I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that, as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers, that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that.

And we've got to provide more confidence to the international community. In some ways, what has been more challenging is the fact that we do have a lot of laws and checks and balances and safeguards and audits when it comes to making sure that the NSA and other intelligence agencies are not spying on Americans. We've had less legal constraint in terms of what we're doing internationally.

But I think part of what's been interesting about this whole exercise is recognizing that in a virtual world, some of these boundaries don't matter anymore. And just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should. And the values that we've got as Americans are ones that we have to be willing to apply beyond our borders, I think, perhaps more systematically than we've done in the past.

OK. Ed Henry?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to follow up on that, because -- merry Christmas, by the way.

OBAMA: Merry Christmas.

QUESTION: When Edward Snowden first started leaking the information, you made a statement on June 7th in California, and you claimed to the American people that you had already reformed many of these surveillance programs, said you came to office, quote, "My team evaluated them, we scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight." And you did expand some of it.


QUESTION: You also said, "We may have to rebalance some. There may be changes." But you concluded with, quote, "You can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."

That was only six months ago. Now, this judge is saying no. Your own panel is saying no. Even you're saying, no, we haven't really struck the right balance, perhaps, that changes have to be made.

My question is, were you wrong then because you were not fully read-in not just on these programs, but on other programs, outside of the ones you just talked about, where we were potentially listening in on the German leaders, the Brazilian leaders, and others, that suggest there were abuses, number one?

And, number two, if you did -- if you were fully read-in on these programs, is it another example of what Judy -- Julie was getting at with this question of credibility with the American people, that just like on health care, if you like your plan, you can keep it. On surveillance, you looked the American people in the eye six months ago and said, "We've got the right balance." And six months later, you're saying maybe not. OBAMA: Well, hold on a second, Ed. I think it's important to note that, when it comes to the right balance on surveillance, these are a series of judgment calls that we're making every single day, because we've got a whole bunch of folks whose job it is to make sure that the American people are protected.

And that's a hard job, because if something slips, then the question that's coming from you the next day at the press conferences, "Mr. President, why didn't you catch that, why -- why did the intelligence people allow that to slip? Isn't there a way that we could have found out that in fact this terrorist attack or"


QUESTION: (inaudible) why did you go -- you struck the (inaudible).

OBAMA: The -- so -- so the point is that not that my assessment of the 215 program has changed, in terms of technically how it works. What is absolutely clear to me is that, given the public debate that is taking place, and the disclosures that are taking place over the last several months, that this is only gonna work if the American people have confidence and trust.

Now part of the challenge is, is that because of the manner in which these disclosures took place in dribs and drabs, oftentimes shaded in a particular way, and because of some of the constraints that we've had, in terms of declassifying information and getting it out there, that -- that trust in how many safeguards exist and how these programs are run, has been diminished.

So what's gonna be important is to build that back up. And I take that into account in weighing how we structure these programs.

So let me just be very specific on the 215 program. It is possible, for example, that some of the same information that the intelligence community feels is required to keep people safe, can be obtained by having the private phone companies keep these records longer and to create some mechanism where they can be accessed in a -- an effective fashion.

That might cost more, there might need to be different checks on how those requests are made. There may be technological solutions that have to be found to do that. And the question that we're asking ourselves now is: Does that make sense not only because of the fact that there are concerns about potential abuse down the road with the metadata that's being kept by a government, rather than private companies? But also does it make sense to do it because people right now are concerned that maybe their phone calls are being listened to, even if they're not?

And we've got to factor that in. So, I -- I -- my point is that the environment has changed in ways that I think require us to take that into account. But the analysis that I've been doing throughout has always been, you know, periodically looking at what we're doing and asking ourselves: Are we doing this in the right way? Are we making sure that we're keeping the American safe, number one? Are we also being true to our civil liberties and our privacy and our values?

QUESTION: I understand it's a tough job, and God forbid there's another terror attack. Every one of us is going to be second-guessing you, and that is extremely difficult to be in the Oval Office.

OBAMA: That's OK.

QUESTION: But as you said...

OBAMA: I volunteered.

QUESTION: ... you put that on. You put it on your back. And so my question is: Do you have any personal regrets? You're not addressing the fact the public statements you've made to reassure the public; your director of national intelligence, James Clapper, months ago went up, got a question from a Democrat, not a Republican, about whether some of this was going on, and he denied it. Doesn't that undermine the public trust?

OBAMA: You're conflating, first of all, me and Mr. Clapper...


QUESTION: He's the director of national security and he's still on the job.

OBAMA: I understand. But what I'm saying is this, that yes, these are tough problems that I am glad to have the privilege of tackling. Your initial question was whether the statements that I made six months ago are ones that I don't stand by. And what I'm saying is is that the statements I made then are entirely consistent with the statements that I make now, which is that: We believed that we had scrubbed these programs and struck an appropriate balance, and there had not been evidence -- and there continues not to be evidence -- that the particular program had been abused in how it was used. And, that it was a useful tool, working with other tools of the intelligence community has, to ensure that if we have a thread on a potential terrorist threat that, that can be followed effectively.

What I have also said, though, is that in light of the disclosures that have taken place, it is clear that whatever benefits the configuration of this particular program may have, may be outweighed by the concerns that people have on its potential abuse.

And, if that's the case, there may be another way of skinning the cat.

So we just keep on going at this stuff and saying, can we do this better? Can we do this more effectively? I think the panel's recommendations are consistent with that.

So if you had a chance to read the overall recommendations, what they were very clear about is, we need this intelligence. We can't unilaterally disarm. There are ways we can do it potentially that gives people greater assurance that there are checks and balances, that there is sufficient oversight, sufficient transparency, programs like 215 could be re-designed in way that is give you the same information when you need it without creating these potentials for abuse. And that's exactly what he we should be doing is to evaluate all these things in a very clear, specific way. And moving forward on changes.

OBAMA: And that's what I intend to do.

QUESTION: You have rest (ph), that's (inaudible).

OBAMA: John Carr (ph)?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

It's been a tough year. You may not want to call it the worst year of your presidency, but it's clearly been a tough year. The polls have gone up and down, but they are at a low point right now.

So what I'm asking, you've acknowledged the difficulties with the health care rollout, but when you look back, I mean, at the decisions that you have made and what you did, what you didn't do, for you, personally, what do you think has been your biggest mistake?

OBAMA: With respect to health care specifically, or just general?

QUESTION: The whole thing, look back at this tough year.

OBAMA: Well, there's no doubt that -- that when it -- when it came to the health care rollout, even though I was meeting every other week or every three weeks with folks and emphasizing how important it was that consumers had a good experience, an easy experience, in getting the information they needed, and knowing what the choices and options were for them to be able to get high-quality, affordable health care, the fact is, it didn't happen in the first month, the first six weeks, in a way that was at all acceptable.

And, since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up.

Part of it, as I've said before, had to do with how I.T. procurement generally is done, and it almost predates this year. Part of it, obviously, has to do with the fact that there were not clear enough lines of authority in terms of who was in charge of the technology and cracking the whip on a whole bunch of contractors.

So there are a whole bunch of things that we've been taking a look at. And I'm gonna be making appropriate adjustments, once we get through this year and we've gotten through the initial surge of people who've been signing up.

But, you know, having said all that, bottom line also is, is that we've got several million people who are going to have health care that works. And it's not that I don't engage in a lot of self- reflection here. I promise you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than you or Ed Henry does on any given day.

But I've also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day and that we keep moving forward. And when I look at the landscape for next year, what I say to myself is, we're poised to do really good things. The economy is stronger than it has been in a very long time. Our next challenge, then, is to make sure that everybody benefits from that, not just a few folks. And there are still too many people who haven't seen a raise and are still feeling financially insecure.

We can get immigration reform done. We've got a concept that has bipartisan support. Let's see if we can break through the politics on this.

You know, I think that, hopefully, folks have learned their lesson in terms of brinksmanship coming out of the -- coming out of the government shutdown. You know, there have been times where I've thought about, were there other ways that I could have prevented that -- those three, four weeks that hampered the economy and hurt individual families who were not getting a paycheck during that time? Absolutely.

But I also think that, in some ways, given the pattern that we have been going through with House Republicans for a while, we might have needed just a little bit of a bracing sort of recognition that this is not what the American people think is acceptable. They want us to try to solve problems and be practical, even if we can't get everything done.

So, you know, the end of the year is always a good time to reflect and see, what can you do better next year? That's how I intend to approach it. I'm sure that I will have even better ideas after a couple days of sleep and sun.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. On the debt ceiling, your treasury secretary has estimated that the U.S. government will lose its ability to pay its bills come late February or early March. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has said that Republicans are going to decide what it is they can accomplish on the debt limit fight, his words. Will you negotiate with House Republicans on the debt ceiling?

OBAMA: Oh, you know the answer to this question. No, we're not going to negotiate for Congress to pay bills that it has accrued.

Here's the good news. I want -- I want to emphasize the positive as we enter into this holiday season. I think Congressman Ryan and Senator Murray did a good job in trying to narrow the differences and actually pass a budget that I can sign. It's not everything that I would like, obviously. It buys back part of these across-the-board cuts of the so-called sequester, but not all of them, so we're still underfunding research, we're still underfunding education, we're still underfunding transportation and other initiatives that would create jobs right now. But, you know, it was an honest conversation. They operated in good faith. And given how far apart the parties have been on fiscal issues, they should take pride in what they did. And I actually called them after they struck the deal, and I said congratulations, and I hope that creates a good pattern for next year, where we work on at least the things we agree to, even if we agree to disagree on some of the other big-ticket items. I think immigration potentially falls in that category, where let's -- here's an area where we've got bipartisan agreement. There are a few differences here and there, but the truth of the matter is, is that the Senate bill has the main components of comprehensive immigration reform that would boost our economy, give us an opportunity to attract more investment and high-skill workers who are doing great things in places like Silicon Valley and around the country. So let's go ahead and get that done.

Now, I can't imagine that having seen this possible daylight breaking when it comes to cooperation in Congress that folks are thinking actually about plunging us back into the kinds of brinksmanship and governance by crisis that has done us so much harm over the last couple of years.

To repeat: The debt ceiling is raised simply to pay bills that we have already accrued. It is not something that is a negotiating tool. It's not leverage. It's the responsibility of Congress. It's part of doing their job. I expect them to do their job.

Although I'm happy to talk to them about any of the issues that they actually want to get done. So if Congressman Ryan is interested in tax reform, let's go. I've got some proposals on it. If he's interested in any issue out there, I'm willing to have a constructive conversation of the sort that we just had in resolving the budget issues. But I've got to assume folks aren't crazy enough to start that thing all over again.

QUESTION: Quickly on a more personal note, what is your New Year's resolution?

OBAMA: My new year's resolution is to be nicer to the White House press corps.


OBAMA: You know?


QUESTION: Quite a lead in, Mr. President, thank you.

Greg Leggett, who is the head of the NSA task force on Edward Snowden, told "60 Minutes" that it was, quote, "Worth having a conversation about granting Edward Snowden amnesty."

To what degree, sir, were you pleased that he floated this trial balloon?

And, under what circumstances would you consider either a plea agreement or amnesty for Edward Snowden?

And, what do you say to Americans, sir who, after possibly being alerted to Judge Leon's decision earlier this week reading the panel recommendations, believe Edward Snowden set in motion something that is proper and just in this country about the scope of surveillance, and should not be considered by this government a criminal?

OBAMA: I've got to be careful here, major, because Mr. Snowden is under indictment.

He's been charged with crimes, and that's the province of the attorney general and ultimately a judge and a jury.

So, I can't weigh in specifically on this case at this point. I'll make -- I'll try to see if I can get at the spirit of the question even if I can't talk about the specifics.

I said before -- and I believe -- that this is an important conversation that we needed to have. I have also said before that the way in which these disclosures happen have been damaging to the United States and damaging to our intelligence capabilities.

And I think that there was a way for us to have this conversation without that damage. I'll give you just one specific example. The fact of the matter is that the United States, for all our warts, is a country that abides by rule of law; that cares deeply about privacy; that cares about civil liberties; that cares about our Constitution.

And as a consequence of these disclosures, we've got countries who actually do the things that Mr. Snowden says he's worried about, very explicitly engaging in surveillance of their own citizens; targeting political dissidents; targeting and suppressing the press; who somehow are able to sit on the sidelines and act as if it's the United States that has problems when it comes to surveillance and intelligence operations. And that's a pretty distorted view of what's going on out there.

So -- so I think that as important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to U.S. intelligence capabilities and U.S. diplomacy. But I will leave it up to the courts and the attorney general to weigh in publicly on the specifics of Mr. Snowden's case.

QUESTION: Sir, if I could follow up. Mr. Leggett is setting this in motion. He's raising this as a topic of conversation. You, sir, would I'm certain be consulted if there was ever going to be a conversation...


QUESTION: ... about amnesty or a plea bargain of Edward Snowden.

OBAMA: I think that's true, Major. And I guess what I'm saying is...

QUESTION: ... there's little doubt (inaudible) that you would never consider...

OBAMA: What I'm saying is that there's a difference between Mr. Leggett saying something and the president of the United States saying something.

QUESTION: (inaudible) OBAMA: That's exactly right.

Chuck Todd?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. And merry Christmas and happy New Year.

You talk about the issues with health care and the Web site rollout, but there have been other issues, the misinformation about people keeping their policies, the extended deadline, some postponement. We have a new waiver that HHS announced last night.

How do you expect Americans to have confidence and certainty in this new law if you keep changing it?

This -- this one here, this new waiver last night, you could argue you might as well have just delayed the mandate.

OBAMA: Well, no, that's not true, because what we're talking about is a very specific population that received cancellation notices from insurance companies. The majority of them are either keeping their old plan because the grandfather clause has been extended further or they're finding a better deal in the marketplace, with better insurance for cheaper costs.

But there may still be a subset, a significantly smaller subset than some of the numbers that have been advertised, that are still looking for options, are still concerned about what they're gonna be doing next year, and we just wanted to make sure that the hardship provision that was already existing in the law would also potentially apply to somebody who had problems during this transition period.

So that's the specifics of this latest change here.

You're making a broader point that -- that I think is fair, and that is that in a big project like this, that what we are constantly doing is looking, is this working the way it's supposed to, and if there are adjustments that can be made to smooth out the transition, we should make them.

But they don't go to the core of the law. First of all, the core of the law is, is that for 85 percent of the population, all they've been getting is free preventive care, better consumer protections, the ability to keep their kids on their insurance plan until they're 26, $1,000 or $500 discounts on prescription drugs for seniors on Medicare.