President Barack Obama said that the latest terrorism threats are “significant enough” to justify last week’s worldwide travel alert and the temporary closing of almost two-dozen U.S. diplomatic posts.
“Whenever we see a threat stream that we think is specific enough that we can take some specific precautions within a certain time frame, then we do so,” Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno” that aired last night. “This radical violent extremism is still out there and we have to stay on top of it.”
The president’s remarks came days after his administration decided to temporarily close 22 U.S. embassies and consulates from West Africa to South Asia, a move that underscored the potential threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen-based branch of the terror group is known.
During the interview, Obama also faulted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration for refusing to hand over former U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed American surveillance programs that the White House and U.S. intelligence agencies have called crucial to combating terrorism.
The Obama administration had pressed for Snowden’s return to face prosecution on charges including espionage and theft. Russia last week granted Snowden temporary asylum.
“I was disappointed because, you know, even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a lawbreaker or an alleged lawbreaker in their country, we evaluate it and we try to work with them,” Obama said. “They didn’t do that with us.”
The administration announced today that Obama is canceling a planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow before leaders of the Group of 20 nations gather in St. Petersburg. The president will stop in Sweden Sept. 4 and 5 before going to the G-20.
A White House statement cited continuing differences with the Russian government over missile defense, trade and human rights in addition to the standoff over Snowden.
Obama last night said Russia has been cooperative on some issues, such as supplying American troops in Afghanistan and in the U.S. inquiry into the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon.
“There’s still a lot of business we can do with them, but there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” he said.
In bantering with Leno, Obama suggested that his Russian counterpart once led that country’s Soviet-era intelligence service, the KGB. “Well, he headed up the KGB,” Obama said. Putin, 60, served in the KGB as a colonel.
Members of Congress from both parties have been urging Obama to take a harder line with Putin. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Aug. 1 that the move was disrespectful of the U.S. president and a sign that “our foreign policy is not working.”
Obama said Snowden’s revelations about classified National Security Agency programs that collect telephone and Internet data have “raised a lot of questions.” The president said that information gathered by the agency is useful and that oversight by Congress and a federal court act as safeguards to make sure there’s no spying on American citizens.
Snowden gained access to the information that he disclosed while working at the NSA for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. His leaks led U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, to call for an inquiry into private contractors’ security-clearance practices.
Asked last night by Leno about the U.S. reliance on contractors, Obama said that he has asked his national security team to examine whether, “when it comes to intelligence, we should be farming that much stuff out.”
While defending the State Department travel warning and embassy closings, Obama said that as president he tries not to overreact. “The odds of people dying in a terrorist attack are still a lot lower than in a car accident,” he said.
Last night’s appearance marks the president’s sixth on Leno’s show. Such stops are one way for the White House to reach Americans who don’t consume news from traditional platforms.
“The viewers of late-night shows are not necessarily the readers of newspapers or wire services, or necessarily viewers of cable or broadcast news shows,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters with Obama on Air Force One yesterday.
Obama flew to Los Angeles yesterday after giving a speech in Phoenix advocating a larger role for nongovernment capital in mortgage financing. Today, he plans to field questions during an online session on Zillow Inc.’s real-estate information website. Later, Obama will visit the U.S. Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, before returning to Washington.