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Obama: ‘Lives have been saved’ by NSA surveillance programs

President Obama on Tuesday defended the National Security Agency's (NSA) surveillance programs at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday in Berlin, claiming "at least 50 threats have been averted" thanks to information gleaned from the programs.

"Lives have been saved, and the encroachment on privacy has been strictly limited by a court-approved process," the president said.

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The revelation of the programs earlier this month by 29-year-old former Defense contractor Edward Snowden has caused particular outrage in Germany, where political leaders have blasted the surveillance as a violation of privacy rights. One of the programs disclosed by Snowden sought Internet data on foreigners from U.S. tech companies.

On Wednesday, President Obama repeatedly insisted that the NSA programs were "a circumscribed, narrow system."

"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anyone else," Obama said.

He also pledged "to be cautious about how our governments are operating when it comes to intelligence."

"I came in with a healthy skepticism about how our various programs were structured," Obama said. "But what I have been able to do is examine and scrub how our intelligence services are operating, and I'm very confident right now the right balance has been struck."

Merkel said in discussions with President Obama she had expressed concerns "that there may be some kind of blanket across-the-board collection of information." 

"There needs to be proportionality," Merkel said.

But the German chancellor also called the conversation an "important first step" and said the chat had "brought us forward." She also noted that "there are quite a lot of instances where we were getting very important [intelligence] information from the United States."

Obama’s statements were his latest effort to defend the controversial NSA programs, which have sparked concern over his civil liberties record and damaged his approval ratings.

In an interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose” aired on Monday, the president said that he had struck a proper balance between privacy rights and the demands of national security.

Polls say a majority of voters accepts the programs as a legitimate tool in the fight on terrorism, but still hold doubts about the president’s trustworthiness. A CNN poll earlier this week found more than half do not believe Obama to be honest.

The administration has also sought to provide more information on the NSA programs to lawmakers, many of whom say they were unaware of the extent of the agency's snooping.

NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander testified again before Congress on Tuesday, sharing more details about thwarted terror plots. Alexander said as many as 50 plots had been prevented and discussed a previously undisclosed attempt to blow up the New York Stock Exchange.

President Obama on Wednesday was also questioned by the German press over his failure to close the Guantánamo Bay prison facility and use of drone strikes to target terrorist leaders. 

Obama pointed to a speech he gave last month at the National Defense University in which he reiterated his desire to close the prison complex and outlined a new set of guidelines governing when and how drone strikes occur. 

But the president also admitted that closing Guantánamo "has been more difficult than I'd hoped."

This post was updated at 7:47 a.m.

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