President Obama defended National Security Agency surveillance programs Friday, saying they are designed to promote public safety and protect civil liberties. 'They help us prevent terrorist attacks,'he said, and are valuable despite what he called 'modest encroachments on privacy.' (Evan Vucci / AP)
President Obama defended National Security Agency surveillance programs Friday, saying they are designed to promote public safety and protect civil liberties.
"They help us prevent terrorist attacks," Obama said, and are valuable despite what he called "modest encroachments on privacy."
Commenting after delivering a health care speech in San Jose, Calif., Obama denounced the "hype" surrounding recent news reports on the surveillance, and said "nobody is listening to your telephone calls" or "reading the e-mails" of U.S. citizens.
People can "complain about Big Brother" and the potential of a "program run amok," Obama said, "but when you actually look at the details, then I think we've struck the right balance."
Obama also disputed the idea these are "secret" programs, saying they are "classified" in order to keep potential terrorists from learning about U.S. investigative techniques.
The president spoke a day after new revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs that provide the government with access to certain phone records and Internet use, generating criticism from civil libertarians and privacy advocates.
During a remarkable discussion about national security and the right to privacy, Obama denounced news leaks about the surveillance programs, saying this kind of information should not be "dumped out willy-nilly."
"If every step that we're taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures," he said.
Obama said that when he became president, he made two commitments -- to keep America safe, and to protect the Constitution -- and he has kept them.
The president said he welcomes a renewed debate between the need for public safety and concerns about privacy, adding "there are some trade-offs" involved.
"It's important to recognize that you can't have 100(PERCENT) security and also then have 100(PERCENT) privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said.
Surveillance programs also have oversight from members of Congress and a special court, Obama said. He repeatedly emphasized that Congress created and reauthorized these programs.
"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, due process, and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here," Obama said.
Obama, who criticized some of the counterterrorism policies under President George W. Bush, said his team modified some of those policies to better protect privacy and national security.
In discussing the phone program, Obama said agents do not listen to calls, but instead study the phone numbers as well as the duration and location of the calls. "By sifting through this so-called metadata," he said, "they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."
As for the Internet and e-mail program, Obama said "this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States."
The president's comments echoed those of his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who said in a statement late Thursday night that the data-gathering programs are used to prevent terrorist attacks.
Like Obama, Clapper denounced the leaking of national security information to the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers.
"Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions," Clapper said. "Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns."
Government officials said the government does not monitor the content of phone calls, and that the Internet program applies only to non-Americans.
Civil libertarians raised questions about the scope and risks of the programs.
"The bottom line is that we have to defend ourselves from terrorism, but we don't have to do it in a way that allows the government to accumulate information on literally tens of millions of innocent Americans," Sen Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said Thursday night.
"The secrecy surrounding the government's extraordinary surveillance powers has stymied our system of checks and balances," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She added: "Congress must initiate an investigation to fully uncover the scope of these powers and their constraints, and it must enact reforms that protect Americans' right to privacy and that enable effective public oversight of our government."
Fredreka Schouten contributed to this report.