Obama privately derides controversy over NSA surveillance

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama privately derided the controversy over the blockbuster June 6 revelation of the National Security Agency’s far-reaching capabilities as “noise rather than something that’s real and meaningful,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

Duncan revealed Obama’s dismissive attitude to the dramatic claims by a former defense contractor, Edward Snowden, in a Washington Post report on a White House program to increase Internet use in schools.

Obama made the remark to Duncan on June 6, as they were flying on Air Force One to visit a school in Mooresville, N.C., according to the last few paragraphs of the Post’s Aug. 13 article.

Instead of showcasing the president’s June 6 speech about a new plan to boost Internet use in schools, the major media in the United States and abroad were focused on Snowden’s claims that the NSA was copying huge quantities of private, commercial and criminal emails from around the world.

“‘I remember him sort of saying, “It’s a shame that there’s going to be a focus on the noise rather than something that’s real and meaningful,’’’ Duncan said, according to an Aug. 13 report in the Washington Post.

“As Air Force One flew toward North Carolina that day, Obama lamented to his education secretary that one of the administration’s biggest ideas was going to be overtaken by other news,” said the Post.

The president has also shown disdain for people who don’t trust his management of the NSA’s capabilities.

“The fact that I said that the programs are operating in a way that prevents abuse, that continues to be true,” Obama said Aug. 9. “The question is how do I make the American people more comfortable,” he added.

The school-Internet project, dubbed ConnectEd, is expected to cost roughly $5 billion. Obama wants to pay for the program by having the Federal Communications Commission raise taxes on cell-phone owners, without any agreement from Congress.

Obama is pushing the controversial fund-raising scheme, according to the Washington Post, and told his staff that “We are here to do big things — and we can do this without Congress.”

In his speech at Mooresville, Obama declared that “We’re going to take a new step to make sure that virtually every child in America’s classrooms has access to the fastest Internet and the most cutting-edge learning tools… it will mean a stronger, more secure economy for all of us.”

Obama’s focus on Internet use in schools contrasts with the his seemingly blasé approach to the crisis at the National Security Agency.

Since Snowden’s revelations, Obama has had to defend the agency, struggling to assuage voters who wanted him to follow through on election promises to curb NSA activities.

He answered NSA-related questions in an Aug. 9 White House press conference and has sought to reassure allies in Germany and elsewhere they’re not being spied on.

The revelations have also upended his foreign policy initiatives. For example, one day after Snowden’s first set of leaks, Obama’s complaints about China’s aggressive hacking of U.S. computers were rejected by the Chinese president during a brief summit.

Also, on Aug. 12, Obama appointed a trusted deputy to conduct a “Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies” to help identify possible problems in the NSA’s surveillance programs.

Follow Neil on Twitter