President Obama is having a hard time defending the gushing leaks from the NSA's surveillance programs. It's not because he finds them indefensible; he seems emphatic that although he was worried about these programs as a senator and candidate, seeing them in action and seeing the oversights in place put him at ease.
But here's the problem with selling these programs to those who mistrust them: The average citizen can't go through that same process the president did. Despite the leaks, there's not much public transparency with the programs. Companies involved are ordered not to talk, proceedings in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court are secret, and lawmakers have only just begun explaining to the press how they've overseen the process.
When first asked about the program by a reporter on June 7, Obama said he trusts in the oversight system in place, and gave assurances that the system involves all three branches of government. "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok," he said, "but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."
But the ordinary citizen can't look at the details.
In the same answer, the president said, "I welcome this debate. And I think it's healthy for our democracy."
But we wouldn't be having this debate if everyone followed the law and there was no leak.
So how do you defend a program whose broad details have been exposed but the finer points need to be kept in the dark? President Obama will appear with Charlie Rose on Monday night on PBS to take another stab at it. Based on a transcript of the interview, his defense follows more or less the same lines. "So, on this telephone program, you've got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire program," the president told Rose. "And you've got Congress overseeing the program, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee — but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorization exactly how this program works."
For some, this answer will be enough. For others, it will never be because the argument is reduced to "if you trust the system, you should trust the NSA." And American trust of public institutions is as low as it has ever been.