President Obama on Monday refused to corroborate reports that the National Security Agency had tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In an exclusive interview with Fusion, a new cable channel from ABC News and Univision, Obama said he would not discuss classified information.
Still, he acknowledged that national security operations are being reassessed to make sure the NSA’s growing technical spying prowess is kept under control.
“The national security operations, generally, have one purpose and that is to make sure the American people are safe and that I’m making good decisions,” Obama said. “I’m the final user of all the intelligence that they gather. But they’re involved in a whole wide range of issues.”
“We give them policy direction,” Obama continued. “But what we’ve seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand, and that’s why I’m initiating now a review to make sure that what they’re able to do, doesn’t necessarily mean what they should be doing.”
Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said no one told the president of the NSA’s activity. She said that’s a major problem and plans to launch a separate inquiry.
“The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support,” she said in a statement. “But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”
A senior administration official told ABC News that Feinstein’s claim that collection on our allies would cease is untrue. But the official reaffirmed that limited policy changes are being made.
Reports of broad U.S. surveillance activities is not confined to Germany. Allies like France, Mexico, Brazil and Spain have complained that the U.S. has spied on its citizens.
The president said that his administration launched an internal review of its domestic surveillance activities in light of the leaks made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. But Obama said the government is looking into its overseas spying as well.
“Internationally, there are less constraints on how our intelligence teams operate,” he said. “What I’ve said actually even before the Snowden leaks is that it’s important for us to make sure that we’re doing things in the right way.”
Obama also addressed his signature healthcare law, particularly reports that it could drive up the cost of health insurance plans for many Americans.
He highlighted a new study out tonight by the Department of Health and Human Services that found 46 percent of single young adults, ages 18 to 34, who are currently uninsured could obtain health plans through the exchanges for $50 per month.
“Less than your cellphone bill, less than your cable bill,” Obama said. “And about 70 percent can get if for less than $100 bucks a month.”
Obama directly encouraged uninsured young people to get covered, referencing his own perceived “invincibility.” He recalled a time when he broke his nose playing basketball during his late 20s or early 30s.
“There were times when I had unexpected illnesses or accidents,” he said. “This is a good investment for young people and you know when you look at the number of who actually want health insurance, but are having trouble affording it, that fact we are making it affordable for them … [is] a big deal.”
Turning to the issue of immigration reform, Obama indicated he will not unilaterally suspend deportations despite growing pressure from advocacy groups to stop removals of certain undocumented immigrants.
Last year, he expanded deportation relief for young undocumented immigrants, but he has not broadened that program.
“The problem you get is once you get beyond that fairly small contained group, then how do you make a decision about other categories?” he said. “You can say initially the parents are Dreamers, but then what about uncles or cousins or relatives and at some point the biggest challenge we’ve got is that we’ve still got a law that doesn’t serve the interests of this country.”
The administration is on track to deport 2 million undocumented immigrants by 2014, a much faster rate than under President George W. Bush. But Obama said the only way to fix the nation’s immigration system is through Congress.
“So, the key for folks who are listening to Fusion is to make sure that they continue to put pressure on members of Congress to … get this done before the end of the year,” he said.