President Obama speaks at a joint news conference with German Chancellor… (Rainer Jensen / EPA )
BERLIN -- President Obama tried to reassure skeptical Europeans about sweeping U.S. digital surveillance programs expanded under his watch, arguing that the programs are circumscribed, overseen by a court and effective.
"What I can say to everybody in Germany and everybody around the world is this applies very narrowly," Obama said Wednesday after a meeting in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed the president on whether the programs were violating the privacy rights of German citizens.
"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else," he said. "This is not a situation where we can go on to the Internet and start searching any way we want."
Obama argued that the collection of bulk data on phone records and Internet activity has averted "at least 50 threats," repeating claims made by other administration officials since details about the programs were disclosed two weeks ago.
The news raised civil liberties concerns in the U.S. and abroad. In Germany, where privacy rights are a sensitive topic, the programs have become a hot political issue.
Merkel called the Internet surveillance "uncharted territory" in the debate over security and civil liberties.
"Although we do see the need for gathering information, the topic of proportionality is always an important one, and the free democratic order is based on people feeling safe," Merkel said.
Merkel said she planned to continue the conversation with Obama in future meetings.
The leaders' remarks came during a news conference following their private talks.
Asked about the U.S. decision to begin supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, Obama said he would not detail precisely what weapons were being provided, but that speculation the U.S. was entering into deep involvement in the civil war was "over-cranked."
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