President Obama Friday defended his administration’s massive seizure of private citizens’ phone records, email and Internet activities as “modest encroachments on privacy” that are necessary to fight the war on terrorism.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Mr. Obama said at a hastily arranged news conference in San Jose, Calif. “They’re not looking at peoples’ names and they’re not looking at content. We have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.”
The president sought to quell a growing furor that erupted Wednesday night with the news that the National Security Agency, at the request of the FBI, was routinely collecting the phone records of millions of Verizon customers in the U.S. Late Thursday, the government also acknowledged that the NSA is gathering Internet users’ personal data, such as email, photos and online chats in real time, from the computer servers of at least nine large Web service providers under a top secret program called “Prism.”
The revelations have created a storm of protest among privacy advocates and in Congress, where many lawmakers said they were unaware of the scope of the programs. Mr. Obama said Friday that lawmakers are “fully briefed” on the programs periodically.
“Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” Mr. Obama said. “These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. Your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on what exactly we’re doing.”
With regard to the surveillance of Web data and emails, Mr. Obama insisted, “This does not apply to U.S. citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”
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While Mr. Obama sought to reassure the public that government agents aren’t targeting individuals without probable cause, he also raised the possibility that he himself might be on such a “list” someday after he leaves office.
“I will leave this office at some point, sometime in the next three and a half years,” Mr. Obama said. “After that I will be a private citizen. And I suspect that, on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails, or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list. So it’s not as though I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected.”
Mr. Obama said he must balance national security interests with the protections of individual freedom guaranteed in the Constitution.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” he said. “My team evaluated them. My assessment, and my team’s assessment, was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
The president said there is a system of checks and balances in place among federal judges and Congress and the executive branch to make sure the surveillance programs are not abused.
“We’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight,” he said. “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution and due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”
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He said the government employees involved in America’s national security “take this work very seriously.”
“They cherish our Constitution,” Mr. Obama said. “They operate like professionals. The last thing they’d be doing is taking programs like this to listen to somebody’s phone calls.”