President Obama gave a rambling defense of NSA spying on Americans at what was supposed to be an ObamaCare event today, telling reporters “it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”
Speaking at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose, Calif., Obama lauded Spanish-media promotion of ObamaCare in the state and told Republicans in the House to stop voting to repeal the law “and start working with people like the leaders who are on stage here today to make this law work the way it’s supposed to.”
After a lengthy defense of ObamaCare, Obama opened the floor for “one question” — and was asked for his reaction on reports of broad surveillance of Americans’ phones and Internet.
“The programs that have been discussed over the last couple of days in the press are secret in the sense that they’re classified, but they’re not secret in the sense that, when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” the president said.
Only congressional leadership and the intelligence committees, though, are traditionally briefed on sensitive intelligence matters.
“With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006,” Obama continued. “And so I think at the outset it’s important to understand that your duly-elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we’re doing.”
Trying to break down the separate issues, the president said “when it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls.”
“That’s not what this program’s about. As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls. They are not looking at people’s names, and they’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism,” he said. “…So I want to be very clear: Some of the hype that we’ve been hearing over the last day or so, nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.”
With the snooping on Internet accounts and email, Obama said, “this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.”
“We’re also setting up — we’ve also set up an audit process when I came into office to make sure that we’re, after the fact, making absolutely certain that all the safeguards are being properly observed.”
Obama called the debate over privacy concerns versus security measures “a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.”
“And I think it’s interesting that there are some folks on the left, but also some folks on the right who are now worried about it who weren’t very worried about it when it was a Republican president,” he said. “…You know, I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards.”
The president called the records kept on millions of phone customers “modest encroachments on privacy.”
“And the fact that they’re under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and that they do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens or U.S. residents, absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation, you know, I think on balance we — you know, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about,” he added.
Obama said he didn’t welcome the leaks that made Americans aware of the programs.
“You know, I think — I think that there is a suggestion that somehow any classified program is a, quote, unquote, ‘secret program,’ which means it’s somehow suspicious, but the fact of the matter is, in our modern history, there are a whole range of programs that have been classified because when it comes to, for example, fighting terror, our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm,” he said. “And if every step that we’re taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures. That’s why these things are classified.”
He cautioned against information “just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program.”
“And, by the way, with respect to my concerns about privacy issues, I will leave this office at some point, some time in the next three-and-a-half years, and after that, I will be a private citizen. And I suspect that, you know, on — on a list of people who might be targeted, you know, so that somebody could read their e-mails or listen to their phone calls, I’d probably be pretty high on that list, so it’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected,” Obama said.
“…And in the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential, you know — you know, program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance. All right?”