President Barack Obama on Friday defended the government’s secret monitoring of Americans’ phone records, calling it a necessary tool to fight terrorism but said citizens’ privacy remains intact.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said. “That’s not what this program’s about.”
Instead, he said the intelligence community is “looking at phone numbers and durations of calls.”
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“They are not looking at people’s names and they are not looking at content,” he said. “By sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might be engaged in terrorism.”
Speaking in California, Obama notably did not deny the federal government’s surveillance operations. Instead, he said Congress is kept fully apprised of the programs, which he said are overseen by lawmakers and by the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court.
It was his first time publicly addressing the issue since Wednesday’s bombshell report in the Guardian newspaper about a secret court order mandating telecommunications company Verizon turn over all phone records to the National Security Agency on an ongoing daily basis. The court order was issued in April and lasts until July, but Obama said such programs have been in place since 2006.
The Washington Post followed up with a massive report Thursday about an Internet program known as PRISM that uses top technology companies to collect email, video, photos and much more.
Obama insisted the program does not apply to any U.S. citizens or to people living in the United States.
Any further action the government wishes to take, such as reading email or listening to phone calls, requires an additional court order.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”