White House press secretary Jay Carney defended National Security Agency programs on Thursday, saying they "examine only a very small percentage" of the world’s Internet traffic.
Carney insisted that emails sent by ordinary Americans overseas were "not being read" and that NSA was only collecting information it was "explicitly authorized" to collect.
"And while NSA analysts examine only a very small percentage of the world's traffic, if communications of U.S. persons are incidentally collected, the agency must follow minimization procedures that are approved by the U.S. attorney general and designed to protect the privacy of U.S. persons," he said at his daily press briefing.
Carney was questioned about the administration’s surveillance activities in light of a New York Times report on Thursday that said the NSA had been "searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans' emails and text communications" without a warrant.
The Times reported the NSA’s surveillance is more extensive than previously known, with officials “casting a far wider net for people who cite information” linked to foreigners who are under investigation.
Carney said the NSA targets information only on "terrorist threats or potential terrorist threats emanating from foreign persons and foreign areas," and added that safeguards were in place to protect privacy.
"These procedures require NSA to minimize the acquisition processing, retention and dissemination of information of or concerning U.S. persons," Carney said. "The purpose of the program is to investigate and potentially prevent terrorist threats emanating from foreign sources.”
The top-secret surveillance programs have come under intense scrutiny from lawmakers and civil rights advocates after their revelation earlier this year by former Defense contractor Edward Snowden.
Last week, President Obama met with some of the program's most vocal congressional critics at the White House and told them he was open to changing the system.
The president was also questioned about the NSA surveillance during a visit on Tuesday to NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He defended the programs as providing “useful” information and said the agency does not target U.S. citizens.
“We don’t have a domestic spying program,” Obama said. “What we do have is some mechanisms that can track a phone number or an email address that is connected to a terrorist attack.”
Obama called the surveillance programs “a critical component to counterterrorism,” but acknowledged that they’ve “raised a lot of questions for people.”
“What I've said before, you know, and I want to make sure I repeat ... is we should be skeptical about the potential encroachments on privacy. None of the revelations show that the government has actually abused these powers, but they are pretty significant powers,” he said.
Jonathan Easley contributed.
— This story was updated at 3:23 p.m.