President Barack Obama issued a strong statement in support Friday for the controversial National Security Agency surveillance programs that have been disclosed to the press in recent days.
“You can shout Big Brother or program run amok, but if you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Obama said in his first remarks on the subject since the issue arose this week.
Obama repeated details that administration had put out about the programs after reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post put two classified programs into the spotlight. The first involves U.S. officials gathering records on all phone calls, including call duration and phone numbers, to look for patterns that can be tied to terrorist activity. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said repeatedly. “That’s not what this program is about.
Obama said that a second program collecting global internet traffic only applies to foreigners. “This does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people in the United States,” he said.
Both programs, the president maintained, are overseen by all three branches of the federal government, are reviewed regularly by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and have been in place since the administration of President George W. Bush.
“It is important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we are doing,” Obama told reporters before flying to Los Angeles for a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Rancho Mirage, Calif., this weekend for an informal summit.
Obama, who ran for president in 2008 on a platform of reversing some of the Bush administration’s encroachments on civil liberties, instead defended the programs. “I came in with a healthy skepticism about these program,” Obama said, noting his administration has strengthened some program safeguards. “My assessment and my team’s assessment is that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he continued. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society. On balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should be comfortable about.”
Obama also addressed growing outrage on Capitol Hill about the programs. “I welcome this debate. I think it’s healthy for our democracy. It’s a sign of maturity.”
The president, whose administration has led a crackdown on government leakers, also condemned the release of classified information about the programs, saying they make it “very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people.”
“If people don’t trust the executive branch, and also congress and the judicial branch, then we’re going to have some problems here,” Obama admitted.