Obama Defends NSA Surveillance

President says checks and balances are in place to safeguard privacy.

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President Barack Obama embraces former President George W. Bush after he spoke at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Thursday, April 25, 2013.

President Obama says his administration's surveillance programs, though controversial, are a significant improvement over those fashioned by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney.

[BROWSE: Editorial Cartoons on the NSA]

In an effort to shore up support within his Democratic base and among civil libertarians, who have long criticized Bush's policies, Obama said, "Some people say, "Well, you know, Obama was this raving liberal before. Now he's, you know, Dick Cheney.' Dick Cheney sometimes says, 'Yeah, you know? He [Obama] took it all lock, stock and barrel.' My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism but rather, are we setting up a system of checks and balances?"

In an interview last weekend, Cheney defended the government's surveillance programs but at the same time said Obama isn't tough enough on national security to be "credible" on the issue. 

Obama argued that the surveillance programs during his administration have "disrupted plots" both in the United States and abroad. He acknowledged that the programs--which were recently leaked to the media--collect huge amounts of information about telephone calls made in or through the United States and monitor email traffic, and could be used to invade Americans' privacy.

[READ: Obama Defends Sweeping NSA Surveillance Programs]

"All of that is true, except for the fact that for the government, under the program right now, to do that, it would be illegal," the president said. "We would not be allowed to do that." He added that media reports of the surveillance programs have exaggerated their scope and haven't adequately described the many safeguards that his administration has imposed through oversight by Congress and the judiciary.

Obama said, "Point Number One, if you're a U.S. person, then NSA [the National Security Agency] is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your emails unless it's getting an individualized court order," Obama said. "That's the existing rule."

Obama made the comments in an interview with PBS commentator Charlie Rose which aired Monday night.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership."  Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.

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