Obama defends phone sweep amid uproar

Obama defends phone sweep amid uproar

US President Barack Obama today strongly defended sweeping secret surveillance into telephone records of millions of Americans and foreigners' Internet use, as he assured people that intelligence agencies were not listening to their calls.

"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this programme's about," Obama said in response to a question at a public meeting in California where he is travelling.

Defending his administration's decisions in this regard, including seeking information about internet and email usage of foreigners, Obama asserted that this has helped the US prevent terrorist attacks.

"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," Obama said.

"But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism," 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. 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," the US President clarified.

His assurances came amid reports appearing in several media outlets - The Washington Post and Guardian - that the US intelligence agencies have been secretly taking information on foreigners overseas for years from companies like Google, Facebook and Apple in search of security threats.

"We strongly object to using that power in this manner," The New York Times said in an editorial.

"The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it," the daily said.

In a report, The Washington Post said under the programme codenamed PRISM, the National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading US Internet companies - Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple - extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.

"The court-approved programme is focused on foreign communications traffic, which often flows through US servers even when sent from one overseas location to another," the report said.

The companies, however, denied such allegations, arguing that they are not providing
any such assistance to the US government.

"We have never heard of PRISM. We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order," Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said.

The secretive programme, now out in the media, Obama argued is fully overseen not just by Congress but by the FISA Court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programmes to make sure that the executive branch, or government generally, is not abusing them and that it's being consistent with the Constitution and rule of law.
Obama said seeking information about use of internet and emails, does not apply to US citizens.

"With respect to the Internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens, and it does not apply to people living in the US. And again, in this instance, not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA Court has to authorise it," he said.
Both the programmes, Obama said, have been authorised by the Congress.

"In summary, what you've got is two programmes that were originally authorised by Congress, have been repeatedly authorised by Congress, bipartisan majorities have approved on 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 programme throughout," the US President said, adding that his administration has set up an audit process.

At the same time Obama said the two programmes have prevented terrorist attacks.

"My assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks and the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content that on, you know, net, it was worth us doing. Now, some other folks may have a different assessment of that," he said.

"I think it's important to recognise that you can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society," he noted.

"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 US citizens or US residents, absent further action by a federal court that is entirely consistent with what we would do, for example, in a criminal investigation, I think on balance we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about," Obama said.

He expressed his displeasure on leaks in the media in this regard.

"I don't welcome leaks, because there's a reason why these programmes are classified....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 said.

In response to the media reports, National Intelligence Director James R Clapper earlier today said, "The information acquired has been part of an overall strategy to protect the US from terrorist threats,"

In a statement, Clapper said the recordings "may assist counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities."

"Information collected under this programme is among the most important and valuable foreign intelligence information we collect, and is used to protect our nation from a wide variety of threats," he said.

"The unauthorised disclosure of information about this important and entirely legal programme is reprehensible and risks important protections for the security of Americans," Clapper added.

Alleging that The Post article omits key information regarding how a classified intelligence collection programme is used to prevent terrorist attacks and the numerous safeguards that protect privacy and civil liberties, Clapper said he has directed that certain information related to the "business records" provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act be declassified and immediately released to the public.

Although this programme has been properly classified, the leak of one order, without any context, has created a misleading impression of how it operates.

"Accordingly, we have determined to declassify certain limited information about this programme," he said.

The programme, Clapper said, does not allow the Government to listen in on anyone's phone calls.

"The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the identity of any subscriber," he said. "The only type of information acquired under the Court's order is telephony metadata, such as telephone numbers dialed and length of calls."

"The collection is broad in scope because more narrow collection would limit our ability to screen for and identify terrorism -related communications. |

Acquiring this information allows us to make connections related to terrorist activities over time. The FISA Court specifically approved this method of collection as lawful, subject to stringent restrictions," Clapper said.

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