President Obama on Friday defended a pair of recently disclosed surveillance programs as striking the “right balance” between national security and civil liberties following a speech Friday in California.
“You can't have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a government,” Obama said.
The administration acknowledged Thursday that the National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored domestic telephone data and international Internet traffic from tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook.
Obama stressed that every member of Congress had been briefed on the phone monitoring program and that the relevant Intelligence committees were aware of PRISM — the code name of the NSA's secret program to monitor Internet traffic. He also noted that federal judges had to sign off on data-gathering requests.
“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 we're abiding by the Constitution, then we're going to have some problems here,” Obama said.
Critics of the program have said that the courts and Congress have had little real oversight of the programs.
Congressional leaders say confidentiality restrictions have limited their ability to publicly voice their concerns, and the administration has not provided court rulings under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for their review. They also say the administration has aggressively over-interpreted what is authorized to do under the law.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) accused the administration of using a “broad vacuum” to gather data from ordinary citizens, surpassing the “plain language of the law," in an interview with MSNBC.
Civil liberties groups have also dismissed the administration’s assurances that each surveillance program undergoes FISA judicial review, blasting the court as a rubber stamp. In a letter sent earlier this year to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Attorney General Eric Holder said the court approved 1,788 of 1,789 applications for electronic surveillance; the government withdrew the one remaining petition.
The president went on to say that the White House believed the programs played an important role in preventing terror attacks.
“My assessment and my team’s assent was they help us prevent terrorist attacks, and the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved … on net, it was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that,” he said.
On the collection of phone data, Obama stressed that the government agency was only “looking at phone numbers and durations of calls; they're not looking at people.” He said that to listen in on calls, investigators would need to obtain new authorization from a federal court.
“I want to be very clear: Some of the hype that we've been hearing over the last day or so, nobody's listening to the content of people's phone calls,” Obama said.
In regard to Internet data, the president noted the surveillance “does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the U.S.”
The president also said he had a personal interest in the controversy because when he left office, he could be a prime target for surveillance.
“I suspect that on a list of people who might be targeted so that someone could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I'd probably be pretty high on that list,” Obama said.
But, the president said, he had confidence in the checks and balances installed in the system, and that those involved in the program were worried about the constitutional questions at hand.
"I know that the people who are involved in these programs, they operate like professionals, and these things are very narrowly circumscribed. They're very focused," Obama said.
He added that those involved in the nation's security "take this work very seriously" and "cherish the Constitution."
"The last thing they'd be doing is taking programs like this to listen to somebody's phone calls," Obama said.
The president said that upon taking office, he had approached the surveillance programs with a “healthy skepticism” and insisted on additional oversights and safeguards.
Still, Obama acknowledged that not everyone would be satisfied by his defense of the program and said he welcomed a debate about the issue.
“I think it’s healthy for our democracy. I think it’s a sign of maturity,” Obama said. Nevertheless, Obama attempted to preempt some of the criticism from Capitol Hill by suggesting it was politically motivated.
“I think it's interesting that there are some folks on the left, but also some folks on the right, who are now worried about it who weren't very worried about it when it was a Republican president,” Obama said.
While centrist leaders on both sides of the aisle defended the surveillance programs Thursday, liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans both suggested the NSA had overstepped its bounds. Some lawmakers have called for congressional investigations into the program, and the surveillance efforts are likely to receive tough new scrutiny.
Obama also said that while he was happy to defend the classified programs, he was displeased that their existence had been leaked to the press.
“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,” Obama said. “That's why these things are classified.”
This story was posted at 12:45 p.m. and updated at 2:07 p.m.