President Obama just delivered his first public statements on the massive government surveillance efforts on internet companies and phone records targeting millions of ordinary citizens, which were revealed by leaked documents published online earlier this week. Answering a reporter's questions after his speech on healthcare in San Jose, California, the president sought to downplay both the scope of the reported surveillance programs and their secrecy, saying Congress not only knew about them, but overwhelmingly approved both programs. "These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006," Obama said, adding, "your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing."
He then moved on to talk about phone surveillance specifically:
When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this program is about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called 'metadata,' they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation.
He continued: "This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA Court," and noted, "every member of Congress has been briefed on this program." Listen to the full 15 minutes' worth of remarks here.
Turning then to the far-reaching internet spy program dubbed PRISM, which allegedly lets the National Security Agency (NSA) tap into web user data on the servers of Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple, and other large US tech companies, the president remained on the defensive. "With respect to internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States," he said, "again, in this instance, not only is Congress fully appraised of this, but what is also true is that the FISA Court has to authorize it."
He defended the programs as broadly supported by lawmakers and legal under the Constitution:
In summary, what you've got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress; have been repeatedly authorized by Congress; bipartisan majorities have approved them; Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted; there are a whole range of safeguards involved; and federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout.
He said that when he came into office, "we set up an audit process ... to make absolutely certain all the safeguards are being properly observed."
"I welcome this debate. I think it's healthy for our democracy."
But the president noted that there was room for debate on the issue of "how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved. I welcome this debate. I think it's healthy for our democracy. I think it's a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate."
He also acknowledged his own vocal criticism of broad government surveillance as a senator, before he was elected president, saying:
I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them, we scrubbed them thoroughly, we actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. But my assessment, and my team's assessment, was that they helped us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and without looking at content — that on net, was worth us doing. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that.
But I think it's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security, and also then have 100 percent privacy, and zero inconvenience. You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society. What I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.
After re-emphasizing that the programs "are under very strict supervision by all three branches of government" and that "they do not involve listening to people's phone calls; do not involve reading the emails of US citizens or US residents," he said: "I think on balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about."
"If people can't trust not only the executive branch, but also don't trust Congress and federal judges...we're going to have some problems here."
The president explained that Congress could kill the programs at any time if lawmakers wanted, and that the American people were ultimately responsible for electing those lawmakers. "These are the folks you all vote for as your representatives in Congress, and they're being fully briefed on these programs. If in fact there were abuses taking place, presumably, those members of Congress could raise those issues very aggressively. They are empowered to do so." He said that federal US judges could also "make sure these programs aren't being abused ... 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."
As he was turning to leave the podium, a reporter asked about the fact that these surveillance efforts came to light through leaked documents. "I don't welcome leaks," Obama said.
Because there's a reason why these programs are classified ... if every step that we're taking to try and prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That's why these things are classified.
He also noted that after he leaves office, "I'll be a private citizen, and I suspect that on a list of people who might be targeted so that somebody could read their emails or listen to their phone calls, I'd probably be pretty high on that list. So it's not as if I don't have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected." He concluded: "In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother, and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance."