SAN JOSE — President Obama strongly defended the government's secret surveillance of people's phone records and Internet activities Friday, saying there are "a whole bunch of safeguards involved" and that Congress has repeatedly authorized the programs.
Commenting on the surveillance for the first time since news organizations revealed the sweeping National Security Agency programs this week, Obama highlighted limits to the programs to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens and said the surveillance has helped the government thwart terrorist attacks.
"They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said. He added that the programs are "under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and they do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens and U.S. residents."
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Obama spoke at length about the need to find a proper balance between national security prerogatives and civil liberties.
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
Obama said there has been a lot of "hype" about the administration's surveillance effort, as he detailed the legal checks and balances that have been put in place to ensure the efforts are consistent with the law.
The President acknowledged that he took office in 2009 with "a healthy skepticism about these programs," but after thorough evaluation by his advisers concluded they were necessary.
"We scrubbed them thoroughly," Obama said. "We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration (of calls) without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net it was worth us doing."
Obama's remarks came a day after the revelation that the NSA and FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in an effort to track foreign targets. Top-secret documents revealed by The Washington Post on Thursday show the agencies have been extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs as part of a program code-named PRISM. Until now, the program had not been made public.
Obama said Congress has been briefed on the program and it does not involve monitoring e-mails of U.S. citizens and residents.
The program was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush's secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the President to look for new authority.
The NSA has also come under scrutiny this week as new details about the agency's telephone surveillance efforts have surfaced. On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper first reported the agency has been collecting phone records of millions of American customers of Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications providers.
Both the PRISM program and the phone surveillance efforts are lawful, Obama said Friday. He repeatedly noted that Congress has been looped in throughout the process.
"In summary, what you've got is two programs initially authorized by Congress, (and) have been repeatedly authorized by Congress, (and) bipartisan majorities have approved them," Obama said.
Speaking to members of the press Friday, President Obama sought to assure Americans that the government collects telephone call durations and numbers but not content.
"If, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it's very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people," Obama said.
Key lawmakers have buttressed the telephone surveillance effort, with one telling reporters Thursday the program helped thwart a terror attack on American soil.
"Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told reporters. "And it's used to make sure that there is not an international nexus to any terrorism event if there may be one ongoing. So in that regard, it is a very valuable thing."
On Capitol Hill, there has been a stark contrast between the way lawmakers vociferously reacted to public revelations about the NSA's telephone surveillance efforts and their virtual silence on the PRISM program. Eighteen hours after the story broke, basically no leading members of Congress have weighed in on the program. The muted posture is a departure from the swift and full-throated response to Wednesday's revelation that the NSA collected all of Verizon's phone records, both from opponents and supporters of the surveillance.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was asked about the PRISM report Thursday evening in the hours after it was revealed. He declined comment, citing the classified nature of the program and his status as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to an aide.
Top Republicans and Democrats on both the House and Senate intelligence committees have yet to comment either. After the Verizon story broke Wednesday, these members forcefully defended the program, saying it helped stop terrorism before it occurs.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. defended the PRISM program late Thursday, saying in a statement that "information collected under the program is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats. The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans."
But civil liberties groups expressed deep disapproval. American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said PRISM "is very disturbing. . . . These companies have an obligation to their subscribers and their customers to protect sensitive information."
David Medine, the recently confirmed chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent watchdog within the Executive Branch, said the board sent a letter to Clapper on Friday asking to be briefed on both PRISM and the telephone surveillance program.
Several companies contacted by The Post said they did not know about the PRISM program, did not allow direct government access to their servers and asserted that they responded only to targeted requests for information.
"We do not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers," said Joe Sullivan, chief security officer for Facebook. "When Facebook is asked for data or information about specific individuals, we carefully scrutinize any such request for compliance with all applicable laws, and provide information only to the extent required by law."
"We have never heard of PRISM," said Steve Dowling, a spokesman for Apple. "We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order."
The Guardian reported Friday that GCHQ, Britain's equivalent of the NSA, also has been secretly gathering intelligence from the same internet companies through an operation set up by the NSA.