SAN JOSE — President Obama said Friday that the government is not listening to the phone calls and reading the emails of Americans, but warned that the country “can’t have 100% security” and still have “100% privacy.”
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said. Investigators “are not looking at people’s names and they’re not looking at content,” he said, but rather examining call logs to “identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism.”
As for examining emails and other Internet communications, he said, “this does not apply to U.S. citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”
While people can “complain about Big Brother” in the abstract, “when you actually look at the details,” the government’s programs to collect information come with strict limits, he said.
Obama made his remarks to reporters in San Jose, where he was attending a Democratic fundraising event before his meetings this weekend with the president of China.
Obama’s director of national intelligence confirmed Thursday evening that the government has a program that allows it to tap into the central servers of leading Internet companies to search for data potentially linked to terrorism, espionage or nuclear proliferation.
The program is intended to reach only material belonging to foreigners living abroad, but the National Security Agency, which runs the effort, has admitted that it inevitably sweeps up some material belonging to Americans, the Washington Post reported Thursday in initially breaking news of the program, code-named Prism.
The programs are “fully overseen” not just by Congress but by a special court put together to evaluate such things, Obama said, all done “consistently with the Constitution and rule of law.”
If anyone wants to go further than just the “top-line data” about phone calls, Obama said, “they’d have to go back to a federal judge” and explain why they wanted to dig further into the call information.
Obama said that, when he got to the White House, he brought a “healthy skepticism” about these programs. His team evaluated them, he said, and “scrubbed them” thoroughly.
He said he is comfortable they are being used constitutionally but also said he is open to a debate about such practices as the U.S. fight against terrorism evolves.
“I welcome this debate,” Obama said. “I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”
Obama said, however, that he does not “welcome leaks” about the programs. If everything the government does to try to prevent terrorist attacks is “on the front page,” then potential attackers can “get around our preventive measures.”
“If it’s just dumped out willy nilly,” he said, “it’s very hard for us to be effective.”
Intelligence agencies collect data only on when and where calls take place, not their content, he said, and he stressed that those intelligence programs are subject to extensive “checks and balances” from courts and Congress.
The administration’s approach is not “trust me,” he said. “We’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight.”
“On balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about,” Obama said.
“Congress is being fully briefed,” he said. “They’re empowered to look over our shoulder” to “make sure these programs aren’t abused.” Similarly, he said, federal judges who have life tenure and are shielded from political pressure also have oversight over the programs.
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