Obama on Surveillance: ‘On Net, It Was Worth Doing’

Photograph by Carl De Souza/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama in Dublin, Ireland.

Nobody is listening to your telephone calls, President Barack Obama told the American public today, speaking of the government’s gathering of phone records.

And no one is looking at the emails of U.S. citizens or people living in the United States, he said of a sweeping government surveillance of the Internet.

To do either one, the president said, would require returning to the federal judges who have authorized this surveillance with cause for probing further.

And all of this, he said, making a lengthy statement before reporters covering his trip in California today, is done in the interest of averting terrorism.

“You can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” Obama said.“We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”

The surveillance programs revealed in the press this week — the Guardian’s reporting of a federal court order authorizing telephone monitoring that has been ongoing for seven years, and the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Internet traffic reported by the Washington Post last night — are “secret in the sense that they are classified,” Obama said. But “they are not secret,” he said, in the sense that every member of Congress has been briefed on the phone surveillance and leaders have been briefed on the NSA program.

And the government is watching phone traffic, he said, not listening to calls.

“When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he said. “That’s not what this program is about. As indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at peoples names and they are not looking at content.” The sifting of so-called meta-data, he said, enables authorities to track patterns that may offer leads in terrorism investigations.

“With respect to the email,” he said. “This does not apply to us citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”

“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” said the president, who campaigned against former President George W. Bush’s tactics in the war against terrorism.

He has “scrubbed” programs, he said. In some cases, Obama said, he has expanded surveillance. And in all cases, both federal judges and Congress have been involved in authorization and oversight.

And, he said, it works.

“They help us prevent terrorist attacks,”’ he said. “And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content… On net, it was worth us doing.”

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