Obama Defends Government Surveillance Programs

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WASHINGTON
(AP) — President Barack Obama vigorously defended sweeping secret
surveillance into America's phone records and foreigners' Internet use,
declaring “we have to make choices as a society.”

Taking
questions Friday from reporters at a health care event in San Jose,
Calif., Obama said, “It's important to recognize that you can't have 100
percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero
inconvenience.”

It was revealed late Wednesday
that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records
of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers. The leaked document
first reported by the Guardian newspaper gave the NSA authority to
collect from all of Verizon's land and mobile customers, but
intelligence experts said the program swept up the records of other
phone companies too. Another secret program revealed Thursday scours the
Internet usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of nine
U.S.-based internet providers such as Microsoft and Google.

In his first comments since the programs were publicly revealed this week, Obama said safeguards are in place.

“They
help us prevent terrorist attacks,” Obama said. He said he has
concluded that prevention is worth the “modest encroachments on
privacy.”

Obama said he came into office with a
“healthy skepticism” of the program and increased some of the
“safeguards” on the programs. He said Congress and federal judges have
oversight on the program, and a judge would have to approve monitoring
of the content of a call and it's not a “program run amok.”

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he said. “That's not what this program's about.”

He said government officials are “”looking at phone numbers and durations of calls.”

“They
are not looking at people's names and they are not looking at content.
But by sifting through this so-called metadata they might identify
potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism,” Obama said.

The
president's remarks followed an unusual late-night statement Thursday
from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who denounced the
leaks of highly classified documents that revealed the programs and
warned that America's security will suffer. He called the disclosure of a
program that targets foreigners' Internet use “reprehensible,” and said
the leak of another program that lets the government collect Americans'
phone records would change America's enemies behavior and make it
harder to understand their intentions.

“The
unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens
potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to
identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation,” Clapper
said of the phone-tracking program.

At the same time, Clapper offered new information about the secret programs.

“I
believe it is important for the American people to understand the
limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that
govern its use,” he said.

Among the previously classified information about the phone records collection that Clapper revealed:

-The
program is conducted under authority granted by Congress and is
authorized by the Foreign intelligence Surveillance Court which
determines the legality of the program.

-The
government is prohibited from “indiscriminately sifting” through the
data acquired. It can only be reviewed “when there is a reasonable
suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the
query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.” He also said
only counterterrorism personnel trained in the program may access the
records.

-The information acquired is overseen
by the Justice Department and the FISA court. Only a very small
fraction of the records are ever reviewed, he said.

-The program is reviewed every 90 days.

The
Obama administration's defense of the two programs came as members of
Congress were vowing to change a program they voted to authorize and
exasperated civil liberties advocates were crying foul, questioning how
Obama, a former constitutional scholar who sought privacy protections as
a U.S. senator, could embrace policies aligned with President George W.
Bush, whose approach to national security he had vowed to leave behind.

Clapper alleged that articles about the Internet program “contain numerous inaccuracies.” He did not specify.

Senior
administration officials defended the programs as critical tools and
said the intelligence they yield is among the most valuable data the
U.S. collects. Clapper said the Internet program, known as PRISM, can't
be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the U.S, and
that data accidentally collected about Americans is kept to a minimum.

Leaders
of Congress' intelligence panels dismissed the furor over what they
said was standard three-month renewal to a program that's operated for
seven years. Committee leaders also said the program recently helped
thwart what would have been a significant domestic terrorist attack.

The
NSA must collect the phone data in broad swaths, Clapper said, because
collecting it narrowly would make it harder to identify
terrorism-related communications.

But the
widespread notion of a government dragnet ensnaring terror suspects and
innocent Americans pushed typical political foes to stand together
against Obama as he enforces what many likened to Bush-era policies.

“When
law-abiding Americans make phone calls, who they call, when they call
and where they call from is private information,” said Sen. Ron Wyden,
D-Ore. “As a result of the disclosures that came to light today, now
we're going to have a real debate in the Congress and the country and
that's long overdue.”

Officials from Clapper's
office, the Justice Department, NSA and FBI briefed 27 senators for
some two hours late Thursday at a hurriedly convened session prompted by
severe criticism and uncertainty about the program.

“The
National Security Agency's seizure and surveillance of virtually all of
Verizon's phone customers is an astounding assault on the
Constitution,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “After revelations that the
Internal Revenue Service targeted political dissidents and the
Department of Justice seized reporters' phone records, it would appear
that this administration has now sunk to a new low.”

Paul
said he will introduce legislation ensuring that the Fourth Amendment
rights against unreasonable searches and seizures apply to government
search of phone records.

The surveillance
powers are granted under the post-9/11 Patriot Act, which was renewed in
2006 and again in 2011. Republicans who usually don't miss a chance to
criticize the administration offered full support.

“I'm
a Verizon customer. I could care less if they're looking at my phone
records. … If you're not getting a call from a terrorist organization,
you got nothing to worry about,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The
disclosures come at a particularly inopportune time for Obama. His
administration already faces questions over the Internal Revenue
Service's improper targeting of conservative groups, the seizure of
journalists' phone records in an investigation into who leaked
information to the media, and the handling of the terrorist attack in
Libya that left four Americans dead.

At a
minimum, it's all a distraction as the president tries to tackle big
issues like immigration reform and taxes. And it could serve to erode
trust in Obama as he tries to advance his second-term agenda and cement
his presidential legacy.

The Verizon order,
granted by the secret FISA court on April 25 and good until July 19,
requires information on the phone numbers of both parties on a call, as
well as call time and duration, and unique identifiers, The Guardian
reported.

It does not authorize snooping into
the content of phone calls. But with millions of phone records in hand,
the NSA's computers can analyze them for patterns, spot unusual behavior
and identify “communities of interest” – networks of people in contact
with targets or suspicious phone numbers overseas.

Once
the government has zeroed in on numbers that it believes are tied to
terrorism or foreign governments, it can go back to the court with a
wiretap request. That allows the government to monitor the calls in real
time, record them and store them indefinitely.

House
Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said that once the data has
been collected, officials still must follow “a court-approved method
and a series of checks and balances to even make the query on a
particular number.”

The steps are shrouded in government secrecy, which some lawmakers say should change.

“The
American public can't be kept in the dark about the basic architecture
of the programs designed to protect them,” said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.

Verizon
Executive Vice President and General Counsel Randy Milch, in a blog
post, said the company can't comment on any such court order. He said
Verizon take steps to protect customers' privacy, but must comply with
court orders. Verizon listed 121 million customers in its first-quarter
earnings report this April.

The NSA is
sensitive to perceptions that it might be spying on Americans. It
distributes a brochure that pledges the agency “is unwavering in its
respect for U.S. laws and Americans' civil liberties – and its
commitment to accountability.”

Emerging from
the briefing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the
Intelligence committee, said the government must gather intelligence to
prevent plots and keep Americans alive. “That's the goal. If we can do
it another way, we're looking to do it another way. We'd like to.”

She said Congress is always open to changes, “but that doesn't mean there will be any.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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