"Nobody is listening to the content of people's phone calls," President Obama said Friday as he sought to allay concern arising from news reports over the previous two days of massive data gathering of telephone records, e-mail messages, and other communications by the National Security Agency. Saying he didn't want the day to "just be a bleeding press conference," the president took two questions from reporters in San Jose, California, following his speech on the Affordable Care Act.
"Mr. President," asked Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, "could you please react to the reports of secret government surveillance of phones and Internet? And can you also assure Americans that the government — your government — doesn't have some massive secret database of all their personal online information and activities?"
The president began by citing congressional support for the surveillance programs, noting that "relevant intelligence committees have been briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006." He also insisted that the right of privacy is reasonably protected by procedural safeguards in the programs.
The programs "make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said, adding that they are "under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and they do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of U.S. citizens and U.S. residents."
"As was indicated, what the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls," Obama continued. "They are not looking at people's names, and they're not looking at content." Before members of the "intelligence community" may listen to a phone call, he said, "they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation."
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Photo of President Obama: AP Images