News Column

Obama Defends Surveillance Programs in San Jose

June 7, 2013

President Obama defended his administration's mass collection of telephone and Internet records Friday, saying it's thoroughly overseen by Congress and judges and strikes the right balance between security and privacy.

"When I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one to keep the American people safe, and number two to uphold the Ccnstitution," he told reporters who'd gathered to hear him tout California's implementation of Obamacare health care reform.

"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society," he said. "I think that on balance, we have established a policy and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable with."

"Every member of Congress has been briefed" on the telephone program and the intelligence committees have been briefed on the Internet program, with both approved and reauthorized by bipartisan committees since 2006.

"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama said. "That's not what this program is 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 are not looking at content."

By sifting this telephone "metadata," he said, experts can develop leads to

prevent acts of terrorism. But if the intelligence community actually wants to listen to a call, "they must go back to a federal judge" just like in a criminal investigation, he said.

And the program also is overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court, a panel of federal judges assembled specifically to ensure that programs aren't abused and are consistent with the Constitution and federal law, he said.

"With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to U.S. citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States," Obama said. "Again, in this instance, not only is Congress apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA court has to authorize it."

But Obama noted his recent speech about shifting the nation away from a mindset of perpetual war, and he said he welcomes bipartisan debate of such policies as the sign of a healthy democracy -- even if some Republicans "weren't worried about it when it was a Republican president."

Obama said he came into office "with a health skepticism about these programs" and has increased some oversight and safeguards, but believes "they help us prevent terrorist attacks, and the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers and duration without a name attached and not looking at content, and on the net, that it was worth us doing."

But the president said he doesn't welcome the leaks that have publicized the programs.

"There's a reason these programs are classified," he said. "We have a system in which some information is classified and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure it's not abused."

If information about these and other anti-terrorism efforts is "just dumped out willy-nilly" without regard to potential risks, "then its very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people," he said.

This isn't a case of his administration just saying "trust me, we're doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are," he said. But if people don't trust the administration, Congress and a panel of federal judges to implement and oversee such programs in tandem, "then we're going to have some problems here," he added.

People can complain in abstract about "Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we've struck the right balance," Obama said.

Source: (c)2013 The Oakland Tribune (Oakland, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.