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President Obama's Remarks on Spying Scandal

January 17, 2014
On Friday, President Obama spoke about the spying and surveillance scandal involving the National Security Agency, which has been a hot topic of debate for several months. Mr. Obama addressed criticism of the program and announced changes to it while tracing the changes in his own personal stance on the issue. A controversial and complicated topic, here are 50 words to help you understand the President's address. Transcript available here
surveillance
At the dawn of our Republic, a small, secret surveillance committee borne out of the “The Sons of Liberty” was established in Boston.
reconnaissance
In the Civil War, Union balloon reconnaissance tracked the size of Confederate armies by counting the number of campfires.
intercept
In World War II, code-breakers gave us insights into Japanese war plans, and when Patton marched across Europe, intercepted communications helped save the lives of his troops.
avert
And so, in the early days of the Cold War, President Truman created the National Security Agency, or NSA, to give us insights into the Soviet bloc, and provide our leaders with information they needed to confront aggression and avert catastrophe.
totalitarian
Meanwhile, totalitarian states like East Germany offered a cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers, and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.
proliferation
If the fall of the Soviet Union left America without a competing superpower, emerging threats from terrorist groups, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction placed new and in some ways more complicated demands on our intelligence agencies.
legitimacy
For while few doubted the legitimacy of spying on hostile states, our framework of laws was not fully adapted to prevent terrorist attacks by individuals acting on their own, or acting in small, ideologically driven groups on behalf of a foreign power.
stride
And it is a testimony to the hard work and dedication of the men and women of our intelligence community that over the past decade we’ve made enormous strides in fulfilling this mission.
novel
And yet, in our rush to respond to a very real and novel set of threats, the risk of government overreach -- the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security -- also became more pronounced.
adequate
And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.
sift
Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats.
thwart
Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats.
impending
Second, the combination of increased digital information and powerful supercomputers offers intelligence agencies the possibility of sifting through massive amounts of bulk data to identify patterns or pursue leads that may thwart impending threats.
constrain
This is not unique to America; few, if any, spy agencies around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders.
skepticism
For all these reasons, I maintained a healthy skepticism toward our surveillance programs after I became President.
audit
We increased oversight and auditing, including new structures aimed at compliance.
cavalier
What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale -- not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in that initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens.
catastrophic
To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job -- one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic -- the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.
protocol
To the contrary, in an extraordinarily difficult job -- one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic -- the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people.
obscurity
"Obscurity" here really means without being known to outsiders or the general public.
Laboring in obscurity, often unable to discuss their work even with family and friends, the men and women at the NSA know that if another 9/11 or massive cyber-attack occurs, they will be asked, by Congress and the media, why they failed to connect the dots.
complacent
Now, to say that our intelligence community follows the law, and is staffed by patriots, is not to suggest that I or others in my administration felt complacent about the potential impact of these programs.
drone
Moreover, after an extended review of our use of drones in the fight against terrorist networks, I believed a fresh examination of our surveillance programs was a necessary next step in our effort to get off the open-ended war footing that we’ve maintained since 9/11.
robust
And for these reasons, I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty.
fidelity
And given the fact of an open investigation, I’m not going to dwell on Mr. Snowden’s actions or his motivations; I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets.
diffuse
My administration has spent countless hours considering how to approach intelligence in this era of diffuse threats and technological revolution.
unravel
We cannot prevent terrorist attacks or cyber threats without some capability to penetrate digital communications -- whether it’s to unravel a terrorist plot; to intercept malware that targets a stock exchange; to make sure air traffic control systems are not compromised; or to ensure that hackers do not empty your bank accounts.
unilaterally
Moreover, we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.
feign
We know that the intelligence services of other countries -- including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures -- are constantly probing our government and private sector networks, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, and intercept our emails, and compromise our systems.
ardent
Second, just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private information is digitized.
libertarian
A libertarian is someone who believes in absolute freedom of thought and speech and significant limits on government intrusion into personal and professional matters.
Second, just as ardent civil libertarians recognize the need for robust intelligence capabilities, those with responsibilities for our national security readily acknowledge the potential for abuse as intelligence capabilities advance and more and more private information is digitized.
breach
For history has too many examples when that trust has been breached.
underscore
I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months.
converge
I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months.
crude
I make these observations to underscore that the basic values of most Americans when it comes to questions of surveillance and privacy converge a lot more than the crude characterizations that have emerged over the last several months.
dissident
In fact, during the course of our review, I have often reminded myself I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents like Dr. King, who were spied upon by their own government.
vigilant
And as President, a President who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats.
codify
And today, I can announce a series of concrete and substantial reforms that my administration intends to adopt administratively or will seek to codify with Congress.
scrutinize
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.
fortify
Second, we will reform programs and procedures in place to provide greater transparency to our surveillance activities, and fortify the safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.
query
Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls -- metadata that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organization.
poised
For example, if a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is poised to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence.
yield
Having said that, I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future.
prescribe
For that reason, the new presidential directive that I’ve issued today will clearly prescribe what we do, and do not do, when it comes to our overseas surveillance.
suppress
I’ve also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
sanction
And in terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cybersecurity, force protection for our troops and our allies, and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.
evasion
And in terms of our bulk collection of signals intelligence, U.S. intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cybersecurity, force protection for our troops and our allies, and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.
implement
We will appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the new privacy safeguards that I have announced today.
comprehensive
I have also asked my counselor, John Podesta, to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy.
inherent
And this group will consist of government officials who, along with the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, will reach out to privacy experts, technologists and business leaders, and look how the challenges inherent in big data are being confronted by both the public and private sectors; whether we can forge international norms on how to manage this data; and how we can continue to promote the free flow of information in ways that are consistent with both privacy and secur
fascism
Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely -- because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.

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