News Column

Obama Defends Surveillance Program

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President Barack Obama declared Friday that America is "going to have to make some choices" balancing privacy and security, launching a vigorous defense of formerly secret programs that sweep up an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day and amass Internet data from U.S. providers in an attempt to thwart terror attacks.

He warned that it will be harder to detect threats against the U.S. now that the two top-secret tools to target terrorists have been so thoroughly publicized.

At turns defensive and defiant, Obama stood by the spy programs revealed this week.

The National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of Americans each day, creating a database through which it can learn whether terror suspects have been in contact with people in the U.S. It also was disclosed this week that the NSA, through a secret program code-named PRISM, has been gathering all Internet usage - audio, video, photographs, emails and searches - from nine major U.S. Internet providers, including Microsoft and Google, in hopes of detecting suspicious behavior that begins overseas.

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," Obama assured the nation after two days of reports that many found unsettling. What the government is doing, he said, is digesting phone numbers and the durations of calls, seeking links that might "identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism." If there's a hit, he said, "if the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation."

Security and privacy

The furor this week has divided Congress and led civil liberties advocates and some constitutional scholars to accuse Obama of crossing a line in the name of rooting out terror threats.

Obama, himself a constitutional lawyer, strove to calm Americans' fears - but also remind them that Congress and the courts had signed off on the surveillance.

"I think the American people understand that there are some trade- offs involved," Obama said when questioned by reporters at a health- care event in San Jose, Calif.

"It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," he said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity."

Obama said U.S. intelligence officials are looking at phone numbers and lengths of calls - not at people's names - and not listening in.

The two classified surveillance programs were revealed this week in newspaper reports that showed, for the first time, how deeply the National Security Agency dives into telephone and Internet data to look for security threats.

The new details were first reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post, and they prompted Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to take the unusual and reluctant step of acknowledging the programs' existence.

Obama echoed intelligence experts - both inside and outside the government - who predicted that potential attackers will find other, secretive ways to communicate now that they know that their phone and Internet records may be targeted.

"The bad folks' antennas go back up, and they become more cautious for a period of time," said former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Republican who sat on the House Intelligence Committee for a decade, serving as chairman for nearly three years. He said he approved the phone surveillance program but did not know about the online spying.

Debate

The new details of the broad surveillance have brought criticism from civil liberties and privacy advocates, as well as re-igniting a long-simmering debate in Congress over government power in security issues.

"Tell our nation's leaders to stop spying on calls, email," the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote to its followers on Friday. The American Civil Liberties Union demanded a congressional investigation.

In his comments Friday, Obama said that "every member of Congress" had been briefed on the spy programs. However, only members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the leadership, who have high security clearances, are routinely briefed and oversee the surveillance.

Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona called the programs "a serious breach of faith between the federal government and the American people." He demanded the Obama administration limit the surveillance.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said the telephone data collection is "an astounding assault on the Constitution," and he introduced legislation to require a warrant before any government agency could search Americans' phone records.

Obama said he would be happy to join a new debate in Congress over whether the surveillance programs are appropriate, noting that lawmakers continually authorize the measures that some now are criticizing.

Q and A

This was the week that America's intelligence secrets spilled out: Classified court orders. Top secret Power Point slides. Something called PRISM.

It's pretty important stuff, once you've made sense of it.

Here's what you need to know.

Q: What's going on with all this discussion of domestic surveillance?

A: Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Congress hastily approved the USA Patriot Act. That gave the government wide new powers to collect information on Americans.

Separate from the Patriot Act, though, President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct a highly classified wiretapping program. Normally, the government needs a warrant to spy on Americans, but Bush allowed the NSA to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens, read their emails and collect their phone records - all without warrants.

In 2005, The New York Times revealed the existence of that program. Amid the furor, the rules changed. The wiretapping operation and the collection of phone records could continue, but a judge had to sign off on them.

The scope of those programs wasn't fully known. But the government assured people that the spying was narrow and kept them safe. Congress voted to continue the authority.

Then this week, The Guardian newspaper published a classified court document from April that authorized the government to seize all of Verizon's phone records on a daily basis - an estimated 3 billion phone calls a day. The government didn't eavesdrop on anyone (under this court order, at least), but it received all outgoing and incoming numbers for every call, plus the unique electronic fingerprints that identify cellphones.

A program that the government said was narrow was suddenly revealed as vast. Under Bush and then President Barack Obama, the National Security Agency had built a colossal database of American phone calls.

Q: Is it just phone call records being collected?A:

Nope. A day after the court document surfaced, the Guardian and The Washington Post published stories and secret Power Point slides revealing another classified spying program. Unlike the effort to collect phone records, this one hadn't even been hinted about publicly.

This program, code-named PRISM, allowed the NSA and FBI to tap directly into the servers of major U.S. Internet companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and AOL.

Like the phone-records program, PRISM was approved by a judge in a secret court order. Unlike that program, however, PRISM allowed the government to seize actual conversations: emails, video chats, instant messages and more.

Q: How does that work?A:

You're going to hear a lot about PRISM and, when you do it's important to remember two things:

First, it's no less than astonishing that reporters obtained such highly classified, detailed documents about an ongoing intelligence- gathering program.

Second, for all the incredible details, we still know relatively little about the program. The slides appear to be from an internal NSA presentation explaining the value of PRISM to analysts. So they don't get very technical and they leave a lot unanswered.

Imagine someone trying to understand the way a company works using only the slides from the most recent staff meeting. That's what this is.

From the documents, it's clear that the NSA receives data directly from the Internet companies. The information varies by company but includes emails, your social networking activity, the files you receive, even family photos.

Q: But Obama said Friday that Americans are not targeted by this program.A:

That's also, true. It all comes down to the word "targeted." Here's why.

The agency can't target Americans. But targeting is different from collecting. PRISM dumps massive amounts of data from users all over the world into the NSA's computers, and much of that comes from the accounts of American citizens.

All this information lives on NSA computer servers. At this point, the government has your information but can still say it hasn't targeted you. Basically, PRISM might have all your emails but, until someone reads them, you haven't been targeted.

NSA analysts are supposed to focus only on non-U.S. citizens outside the United States. According to the Post, though, "incidental" collection of Americans' data is common, even at the targeting stage.

Let's say analysts are looking at a suspected terrorist. They pull his emails and all his Facebook friends. Then they take all those people and pull their data, too.

According to NSA training materials obtained by the Post, analysts are required to report to their superiors whenever this results in collection of U.S. content, but, the training materials say, "it's nothing to worry about."


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