Former President Bill Clinton said Americans would benefit from increased debate about government surveillance, and called for more transparency about "the procedures, not the details," of the surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency.
During an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, Clinton said the government needs to use big data, but it also needs to protect privacy. Clinton said he was pleased that disclosures of government records reveal that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has worked to curtail abuse of surveillance by intelligence agencies.
"I think it would be a good thing if there were a little more transparency about the decisions of this court," Clinton said. "They clearly have tried to do a good job, and they were clearly disturbed when they found out that even though it may have been unintentional, the government went beyond on a couple of occasions what they had authorized them to do."
Clinton also answered questions about the government's national security powers regarding cruise missile strikes and President Barack Obama's consideration of whether to bomb Syria in response to the use of chemical weapons on its citizens. Clinton ordered bombings against Iraq without congressional approval in 1998 to destroy that country's ability to manufacture chemical weapons, and he said Obama has a similar authority to order an attack against Syria without congressional approval.
"He was not required to go [to Congress] because Syria was clearly in violation of international law. Even though they didn't sign on to the chemical weapons convention there was an international pact against chemical weapons going back nearly 100 years," Clinton said. That Chemical Weapons Convention gives Obama "some international law to fall back on," Clinton said.
Obama's search for public support for a potential cruise missile strike against Syria allowed him "an opportunity to convince people that we weren't going to send soldiers," and it also had a positive impact of pressuring Russia and Syria to work on a diplomatic solution, Clinton said.
"I think after [Obama] saw the debate in U.K. ... it made him think 'this is something the country ought to do together,'" Clinton said, alluding to British Prime Minister David Cameron's failed attempt to gain support from Parliament for a military strike against Syria.
Clinton also addressed Russia's role in the negotiations with Syria. Obama has faced criticism for how the situation could benefit Russia's President Vladimir Putin because of Putin's efforts to persuade Syria to agree to ban chemical weapons.
"There are some who say well, you know, this gives the initiative to Putin," Clinton said. "They say well, this puts Russia in a position of leverage and it guarantees that Assad is going to be in power for a while longer. That's a separate issue. But there is [an] inherent and enduring benefit in taking a step that has the potential to rid the world of these chemical weapons, because it's going to be difficult for anybody else to use them if this happens."