President Obama(Photo: Carolyn Kaster, AP)
President Obama defended National Security Agency surveillance programs Friday, saying they are designed to promote public safety and protect civil liberties.
"They help us prevent terrorist attacks," Obama said, despite what he calls "modest encroachments" on what some consider private activity.
Speaking after delivering a health care speech in San Jose, Calif., Obama denounced the "hype" surrounding recent news reports, and that "nobody is listening to your telephone calls" or "reading the mail" of U.S. citizens.
Obama also disputed the idea these are "secret" programs, saying they are "classified" in order to keep potential terrorists from learning about U.S. "preventive measures."
The president spoke a day after new revelations about National Security Agency surveillance programs that provide the government with access to certain phone records and Internet use, generating criticism from civil libertarians and privacy advocates.
During a remarkable discussion of national security policy, Obama said that when he became president, he made two commitments -- to keep America safe, and to protect the Constitution -- and he has kept them.
He also said he welcomes a renewed debate between the need for public safety and concerns about privacy, adding "there are some trade-offs involved." But Obama also said leaks of details about these programs make them less effective.
Surveillance programs also have oversight from members of Congress and a special court, Obama said.
Obama, who criticized some of the counterterrorism policies under President George W. Bush, said his team modified some of those policies to better protect privacy and national security.
The president's comments echoed those of his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who said in a statement late Thursday night that the data-gathering programs are used to prevent terrorist attacks.
Clapper denounced the leaking of national security information to the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers.
"Discussing programs like this publicly will have an impact on the behavior of our adversaries and make it more difficult for us to understand their intentions," Clapper said. "Surveillance programs like this one are consistently subject to safeguards that are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns."
Government officials said the government does not monitor the content of phone calls, and that the Internet program applies only to non-Americans.
Civil libertarians raised questions about the scope and risks of the programs.
"The secrecy surrounding the government's extraordinary surveillance powers has stymied our system of checks and balances," said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She added: "Congress must initiate an investigation to fully uncover the scope of these powers and their constraints, and it must enact reforms that protect Americans' right to privacy and that enable effective public oversight of our government."