WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama offered a strong defense Friday of his administration’s newly disclosed programs to monitor phone and Internet activity, insisting that secret surveillance helps prevent terrorist attacks.
Obama described the uproar this week over the programs as “hype” and sought to ensure Americans that Big Brother is not watching their every move.
“In the abstract, you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential . . . program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, then I think we’ve struck the right balance,” he said.
Obama made the unscheduled 14-minute remarks Friday after speaking about health care in San Jose, Calif., as he responded for the first time to the growing outrage over the surveillance in recent days. It was yet another event on another day that Obama found overshadowed by a string of controversies in his administration’s second term.
Recent newspaper reports revealed that the National Security Agency is collecting telephone records of tens of millions of Verizon customers and tapping directly into the central servers of nine companies including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and Facebook.
Obama said the programs represented “modest encroachments on privacy” that do not involve listening to people’s calls and do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens and U.S. residents. “Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” he assured repeatedly.
Obama stressed that the programs are “under very strict supervision by all three branches of government,” including Congress and the courts.
“What you’ve got is two programs that were originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress, bipartisan majorities have approved them, Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted, there are a whole range of safeguards involved, and federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout,” he said.
Obama acknowledged that he had been initially skeptical about the programs but changed his mind after his administration evaluated them and expanded some of the safeguards.
While in the Senate, Obama advocated for changes to the Patriot Act that would have required the government to convince a judge that the records it is seeking have some connection to a suspected terrorist or spy. As president, he signed off on them, continuing many of the programs his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, began after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama’s administration has engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on classified national security leaks. On Friday, he condemned the leaks that led to the disclosure of the two secret programs.
“If, in fact, this information ends up just being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks risks to personnel in very dangerous situations, then it’s very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people,” Obama said.