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MSNBC "Hardball with Chris Matthews" - Transcript - Privacy Rights and National Security

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SMERCONISH: Democratic congressman Elijah Cummings, however, told Politico, quote, "The president said that, `I must return to my authentic self,` and I think the president needs to go back and read his own speeches."

So what does it mean that some of the strongest criticism of the president is coming from the left? I`m joined by Senator Angus King of Maine. Senator, what do you say to people who fear their privacy is being violated with this intelligence gathering?

SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Well, I think it`s important, first, to understand exactly what the program is. And when I was reading those first stories that came out, the impression was created that the government was listening in on phone conversations. We now have established that`s not the case. What they have are when calls were made, who they were made to. Michael, this is a classic argument that`s been going on for thousands of years. Who will guard the guardians? How do we produce and create a government that`s strong enough to protect us but not so strong that it can abuse us?

I think there`s some areas here where we need to ask some hard questions and say, Are there ways to achieve the same level of security with less intrusion? For example, it makes me nervous that the government has this huge database of all the phone numbers. I understand in other parts of the world, quite often the data is left with the telephone company. If the government needs to go after, you know, Tamerlan`s cell use, they then would get what amounts to a warrant, go into that database which resides at the company, and get the same information.

I`m with your prior guest. It`s not a question of, Do we need to do this? I think we do. The question is, Are there ways that we can do it that will give us a higher level of protection? And it shouldn`t matter who`s in charge.

SMERCONISH: Senator...

KING: That`s important, I think.

SMERCONISH: ... I`m not privy, obviously, to the intelligence that you see, but it`s interesting that you bring up the Tsarnaev case because I was thinking intuitively that it`s an example of why you should have a program like this because once you know who`s responsible for the bombing of the Boston Marathon and have a phone number for that person -- and you`ll remember for a while, we were searching for the younger brother -- you would instantly be able to see with whom that phone number has connected and with whom that phone number or group of phone numbers have connected. And you would instantly have a matrix that could tell you potentially, is there a terror cell in the United States.

My concern is...

KING: Absolutely, and that was the key question. If you`ll recall, our question -- our first question was, Who did it?

SMERCONISH: Right.

KING: But within minutes of finding these guys, the next question is, Are they in league with other people? Is something going to happen in New York or Los Angeles? And that`s why this is an important program. My only -- the point I`m trying to make is, where does this big database reside? And should it -- does it have to be in the government vault, if you will, or can it be left at the companies?

And those are kinds of technical questions that I`m going to be asking and pursuing because, you know, again, if you create a situation, eventually there`s going to be at least the temptation for abuse. And that`s why I think we need to think of structural solutions, not depending upon the good will of the people that are in charge.

SMERCONISH: Senator, is the...

KING: But you hit it. I mean, that`s why it`s important.

SMERCONISH: Is the president deserving of criticism for a lack of transparency?

KING: Well, you know, it`s a little funny to talk about transparency when you`re talking about programs which, by their very nature, need to be somewhat covert.

You know, you don`t want to go on television and say, well, OK, Mr. Terrorist, today, we`re going to be checking the e-mail on Google. It`s got to be done, I mean, if you want it to be effective. And there have been debates about this.

Now, I just came to the Senate this winter, so I have only been on the committee for four or five months. But my understanding is, this was pretty thoroughly debated over the last four or five years in the Congress, and people did understand what the implications are.

I think the challenge for us, as it always is, is to find the right balance. But, you know, I mentioned this to someone this morning. Put your -- you know, think -- put your journalist hat on, and what if the headline this morning, instead of Obama searches records, had been, Obama canceled program which could have prevented nuclear attack on Miami?

SMERCONISH: That`s a great point. And, Senator Angus King, it`s a great -- it`s a great point.

KING: We would have articles of impeachment already drawn up.

SMERCONISH: That`s true.

KING: So, we have got to do this. The question is, how do we minimize the impact on our citizens?

SMERCONISH: Thank you for your observations, Senator Angus King.

KING: Sure.

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