All-Star Panel: Reaction to changes to NSA metadata program

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," March 25, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To the step we took -- it was announced today, I think is an example of us slowly, systematically putting in more checks, balances, legal processes.

GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DIRECTOR: Now there are some things that we have to work our way through to ensure we have the agility in crisis, but I think all of that is doable. So this is an approach that I think meets the intent of protecting our civil liberties and privacy and the security of this country.

BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS HOST: Is it potentially dangerous in any way, shape, or form?

ALEXANDER: Well, there are gaps no matter where we go. I think this was the best solution that we could come up with.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: NSA Director General Keith Alexander talking as the president talked in the Hague, about a proposal to change the program as it stands now. It's called 215. This is the mass bulk data collection coming from telephone companies. It essentially would mean that the U.S. government wouldn't possess all of these numbers, but would still have access to them if they needed to get to them after petitioning a judge in these cases.

Let's bring in our panel a few minutes earlier than normal since we have a lot to discuss, Juan Williams, columnist with The Hill, Elise Viebeck, staff writer for The Hill, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. Charles, thoughts?

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, I think the policy was a necessary one given the public reaction to the revelations. But what you heard from Keith Alexander was, and he was extremely diplomatic. He didn't want to go against this administration policy, and some could argue it's a reasonable compromise. What he did say is that it might reduce our agility, which was a word he was using to say it could really slow us down in a crisis. You get a bomb going off in the Boston Marathon or a future 9/11, which is, of course, what he and the people at the NSA worry about every single hour, and then you have got to have very quick access, which we had in the Boston Marathon case.

But imagine in the future where you have to go to the phone companies. If the NSA isn't holding the information, it's held by the private phone companies who will cooperate. But there's a matter of speed, there's a matter of time.  He's worried about the gap in trying to find -- let's say you get word of airplanes approaching. What do you do? And you got to get a judge. That's a second layer added, somebody from the FISA court who will approve the inquiry into the numbers.

So, look, I'm sympathetic to the idea that we have to find a compromise. The country has gone 13 years without a second attack, and I think it's become complacent. Alexander has to worry day and night about a second 9/11 and perhaps with weapons of mass destruction. He knows how important it is not to make a mistake and to connect the dots. We are taking a calculated risk. I think it's probably one that you have to have given the mood of the country, but -- and we're going to have to do this every couple years. We're not going to make a decision, we're going to go here and stay this way for a decade or two. We'll change all the time. But if we get a second attack, we're going to go violently in the other direction.

BAIER: Elise, I spent a lot of time -- this interview goes on, it's about 90 minutes. We'll have pieces throughout the week and then leading up to an hour about the NSA and all the controversy. I spent a lot of time asking him about American perception and this thought that there's already a doubt about the U.S. government expanding and what the U.S. government can do, and then to add on to that the NSA and believe that they have enough policing within the NSA to protect privacy is really where a lot of this pushback comes. And he acknowledges that, he gets it, he says.

ELISE VIEBECK, THE HILL: No, that's absolutely right. And you see that from some of President Obama's most ardent supporters. They have been alienated by the practices at the NSA that were revealed by Edward Snowden.  And I think that this is why Obama's move today is really a move to help bring back those poll numbers that are not inevitably low. I think it's easy to dismiss the White House and say that it's all over for the second term, but clearly they're thinking about this, and they realize that this is a way to get back some of the supporters, particularly when you see similar reform proposals getting a lot of air time on Capitol Hill. Clearly lawmakers are moving in this direction and the White House is ready to get on board.

BAIER: And there's a big train that way, Juan, but to Charles' point, we're one terrorist attack away from the pendulum swinging back the other way, you know, saying why didn't you connect the dots?

JUAN WILLIAMS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE HILL: I don't think there's any question. I was sort of out of school, but congratulations on a fine interview from what I've seen so far. But to get that interview is a real coup, and hats off to you. I guess they must be Fox fans.

BAIER: Team effort [inaudible]

WILLIAMS: That's great.


KRAUTHAMMER: And a lot of money. The Cayman Islands account came in handy.



WILLIAMS: But on a serious note, what I took from this was, you know, today in the Hague you had the president saying he thinks the public will be satisfied with this compromise. You have General Alexander saying he thinks it's a good compromise, understanding, as you say, that he gets it, he understands that there are concerns.

But what he said, and I just took it so much to heart, is that his agency, those people are working day and night to try to prevent another attack. This is a serious business. And when he sees Snowden applauded, you know, as he was at South by Southwest when his shaky image appeared there for those young people, when he hears Rand Paul, as Rand Paul said today, oh, President Obama could do away with this problem with a quick order, as if the president is this oppressive force, I think this is a great mischaracterization of what our country is up against. It's not that we're ignorant of civil liberties. We are a country based on those civil liberties. But you have to exercise them in such a way that allows you to protect yourself. Otherwise, you're involved in a suicide pact.

BAIER: There is real anger here. Senator Paul, our own Judge Napolitano talks about this, and Keith Alexander -- General Alexander says he invites them out to the NSA to take a walk around and talk to people, which was interesting. I just thought that was an interesting response to Senator Paul, who's obviously on the stump a lot on this issue of NSA.

KRAUTHAMMER: Just have a look at what you just showed. Senator Paul said these people are drunk on power. Did Keith Alexander look like a man who was drunk on power? He looks like a man who has been worrying night after night that they might have missed a dot and there might be an attack. This looks like people with utter sincerity.

Of course, it's a huge agency. Of course you could have a bad apple or two in the agency, as we saw with Snowden, who was the bad apple. But let's say there are people who want to illegally snoop in on other people. He said there have been 12 cases. Where is the evidence of the massive abuse?  Where is any evidence of somebody who comes ahead and says people were reading my e-mail and my life was intruded on? Of course paranoids will say, of course, how would you know? If there was any illegal or invidious use of this information, you would have heard about it loud and clear. 12 cases, all self-reported by the NSA.

BAIER: The people, Senator Paul and Judge Napolitano and others would say we wouldn't have known any of this had it not been for Ed Snowden.  That what they said, right?

WILLIAMS: What Paul said this morning on "Fox & Friends" was --

KRAUTHAMMER: They deliver a misuse of the information that goes into places it shouldn't go and hurts people, there's no evidence of that. The structure was unknown, yes, it was unknown. Now it's known, and we're going to make an adjustment. Let's see if the country is going to helped or hindered as a result of the adjustment.


BAIER: I'm going to take a break. NSA director on Ed Snowden, something you haven't heard yet, after a quick break.

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