2013 06 07 LAT Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited – NYTimes.com


Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited


Obama Discusses Surveillance Programs: President Obama defends and explains a National Security Agency program that monitors domestic and international phone records.

Published: June 7, 2013 557 Comments

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Friday offered a robust defense of the government surveillance programs revealed this week, and sought to reassure the public that his administration has not become a Big Brother with eyes and ears throughout the world of online communications.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Mr. Obama said, delivering a 14-minute answer to two questions about the surveillance programs at an event that was initially supposed to be devoted to the health care law. “That’s not what this program is about.”

The president’s remarks, during a four-day trip to the West Coast, were his first since the revelations this week of programs to collect information about phone calls and Internet traffic. Mr. Obama said the programs help prevent terrorist attacks and they are kept in check by rigorous judicial and Congressional oversight.

He acknowledged that the public may be uncomfortable with the broad reach of the formerly secret programs, but he said he believed the government had struck the right balance between the need to fight terrorism and the need to protect privacy.

“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Mr. Obama said, repeatedly stressing that the lawmakers from both parties and federal judges were aware of the efforts. “You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

Mr. Obama remained silent on Thursday as national security leaks revealed the secret programs for collecting the information, but on Friday he appeared eager to explain them at length. He dismissed what he called “some of the hype” from news reports and emphasized the limits on the programs.

“If the intelligence community actually wants to listen to a telephone call, they have to go back to a federal judge,” Mr. Obama said. He said the collection of information from Internet companies like Google and Apple does not apply to American citizens or people living in the United States.

He repeatedly stressed that the surveillance programs were subject to Congressional oversight. In fact, he suggested that the programs — which he conceded were classified as top secret — were not truly secret because many members of Congress were aware of them.

“What you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress,” the president said. “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.”

Mr. Obama suggested that Congressional debate behind closed doors should offer the public some confidence that the surveillance is not being abused. He said that those members of Congress — and the judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court — were watching the process.

“If in fact there were abuses taking place, then presumably, those members of Congress could raise those issues.” Mr. Obama said. “They are empowered to do so.”

“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,” he said.

The president also said he welcomed a more public debate over the future of such surveillance programs and what should be the appropriate balance between civil liberties and the need to maintain national security. But he said there “are some trade-offs involved” in that debate.

“My assessment and my team’s assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks,” Mr. Obama said.

Asked about government leaks that revealed the existence of the programs, the president defended the system of classifications that keeps information secret. And he suggested that such leaks make it harder for the government to protect Americans.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Jonathan Weisman and James Risen from Washington; Brian X. Chen from New York; Vindu Goel, Claire Cain Miller, Nicole Perlroth, Somini Sengupta and Michael S. Schmidt from San Francisco; Nick Wingfield from Seattle; James Kanter from Brussels and Eric Pfanner from Serraval, France.

“If, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks, risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people,” Mr. Obama said.

But the disclosure of the programs, which involve some of the nation’s biggest technology and communications firms — including Google, Apple and Verizon — seemed likely to prompt a vigorous discussion among policy makers and Internet consumers about the expectations for privacy and security in an increasingly connected and online world.

Earlier Friday, lawmakers in Washington, many of whom have been privately briefed on the secret surveillance efforts for years, sought to balance their public expressions of concern about the impact on privacy with the need to combat national security threats. Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who often votes with Democrats, said Friday morning that there needed to be a discussion about that balance.

“People ought to have at least a general idea of what’s going on,” Mr. King said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “It’s unfortunate that it has to come out in the form of leaks. The question is where’s the appropriate balance?”

He added: “It makes me nervous that all those phone records are in the possession of the National Security Agency.”

Under the classified program revealed Thursday, the federal government has been secretly collecting information on foreigners overseas for nearly six years from the nation’s largest Internet companies in search of national security threats. The revelation came just hours after government officials acknowledged a separate seven-year effort to sweep up records of telephone calls inside the United States.

Dennis C. Blair, who served as Mr. Obama’s first director of national intelligence, said Friday that there was little debate at the beginning of the Obama administration about whether to continue the National Security Agency’s telephone and Internet surveillance programs that began under President Bush.

“In 2006 and 2007, everything was put under a legal basis. That looked pretty good to us, so we continued it,” Mr. Blair said in an interview with The New York Times. He said that the agency’s relationships with Internet companies have been especially valuable, given the volume of global communications that are now done strictly in cyberspace.

“As the Internet has become the way people communicate, that’s the way we gather intelligence,” he said.

David Medine, who was sworn in last week as the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, said on Friday that he had decided that the first project of the agency will be to scrutinize the calling-log-metadata program and the program that collects information from Internet companies about noncitizens abroad.

The board is an independent executive branch agency with a legal mandate to examine classified counterterrorism programs through the lens of whether they properly balance security and individual rights. It was recommended by the 9/11 Commission, but sat long fallow because of delays in President Obama making nominations and then delays in Senate confirmation votes. With Mr. Medine’s arrival, the agency is finally able to hire staff.

Mr. Medine said he was contacting the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, to request a classified briefing on the programs “at the earliest possible time because these are obviously very pressing issues.” He said the board wanted to assess “what’s the purpose of these programs, and what’s the legal basis, and how have they addressed privacy and civil liberties concerns.”

However, Mr. Medine said he was reserving judgment because “while there is a lot of discussion in the press, there are also classified aspects in the program. We are not going to rush to any conclusions until we understand the whole picture.”

Mr. Clapper said in a statement late Thursday night that the classified program to collect information from Internet providers is used to “protect our nation from a wide variety of threats” and he condemned the leaks of documents describing its existence.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Jonathan Weisman and James Risen from Washington; Brian X. Chen from New York; Vindu Goel, Claire Cain Miller, Nicole Perlroth, Somini Sengupta and Michael S. Schmidt from San Francisco; Nick Wingfield from Seattle; James Kanter from Brussels and Eric Pfanner from Serraval, France.

“The unauthorized disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal program is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans,” Mr. Clapper said. In a separate statement, he warned about the negative impact from the leak of a secret court order authorizing the collection of phone records. The release of the four-page order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court “threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” Mr. Clapper said in the statement.

The disclosure of the extent of United States surveillance caused outrage on Friday among civil liberties and privacy groups in Europe, where data protection has become a hot-button issue. The possibility that the online communications of European citizens could have been caught up in the N.S.A. data sweep, because of their use of American Internet services, caused particular anxiety.

“Mass surveillance is never justified,” said Kirsty Hughes, chief executive of Index on Censorship, a group based in London. “Democracies should be standing up for digital freedom at a time when it is under threat from countries like China and Iran, not undermining it.”

Official reaction from European capitals was more subdued — perhaps partly, analysts said, because many governments would like similar powers to monitor Internet communications.

In Turkey, where antigovernment protests have been raging for more than a week, partly because of complaints about a lack of civil liberties and heavy-handed government, the revelations also touched a nerve.

“If the U.S. complains about foreign governments spying and then it turns out it is doing the same thing — well, what are you complaining about?” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University.

An array of civil liberties advocates and libertarian conservatives said the disclosures provided the most detailed confirmation yet of what has been long suspected about what the critics call an alarming and ever-widening surveillance state.

The Internet surveillance program collects data from online providers including e-mail, chat services, videos, photos, stored data, file transfers, video conferencing and logins, according to classified documents obtained and posted by The Washington Post and then The Guardian on Thursday afternoon.

In confirming its existence, officials said that the program, called Prism, is authorized under a foreign intelligence law that was recently renewed by Congress, and maintained that it minimizes the collection and retention of information “incidentally acquired” about Americans and permanent residents. Several of the Internet companies said they did not allow the government open-ended access to their servers but complied with specific lawful requests for information.

“It cannot be used to intentionally target any U.S. citizen, any other U.S. person, or anyone located within the United States,” Mr. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement, describing the law underlying the program. “Information collected under this program is among the most important and valuable intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats.”

The dual revelations, in rapid succession, also suggested that someone with access to high-level intelligence secrets had decided to unveil them in the midst of furor over leak investigations. Both were reported by The Guardian, while The Post, relying upon the same presentation, almost simultaneously reported the Internet company tapping. The Post said a disenchanted intelligence official provided it with the documents to expose government overreach.

The Guardian and The Post posted several slides from the 41-page presentation about the Internet program, listing the companies involved — which included Yahoo, Microsoft, Paltalk, AOL, Skype and YouTube — and the dates they joined the program, as well as listing the types of information collected under the program.

Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt, Jonathan Weisman and James Risen from Washington; Brian X. Chen from New York; Vindu Goel, Claire Cain Miller, Nicole Perlroth, Somini Sengupta and Michael S. Schmidt from San Francisco; Nick Wingfield from Seattle; James Kanter from Brussels and Eric Pfanner from Serraval, France.