The comments represent the president’s first public response to reports that major telecommunications companies, including Verizon and AT&T, are turning over all of their records to the government “on an ongoing daily basis” and that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI are also datamining the servers of nine technology companies, “extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.”
Deriding the public “hype” over the programs, Obama said that the nation’s security agencies are operating “under very strict supervision under all three branches of government” and claimed that his administration has expanded oversight and increased some of the safeguards to protect privacy rights. “It’s not as if I don’t have a personal interest in making sure my privacy is protected,” he added.
The federal government is “looking at phone numbers and durations of calls” to identify patterns that could produce “potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism,” Obama said, but intelligence officials can only access names and the content of conversations if they “go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a federal investigation.” “Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” he added, “it has been authorized since 2006 by broad bipartisan majorities.”
Obama also indirectly acknowledged the existence of PRISM, a top secret program that allows intelligence officials to search online actives. It does not appear to apply to U.S. citizens (though their privacy coud be “incidentally” compromised) and requires authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) .
“The two programs originally authorized by Congress, have been repeatedly authorized by Congress, bipartisan majorites have approved them. Congress is continuously briefed on how they are conducted, there are a full range of safeguards involved and federal judges are overseeing the full process throughout,” Obama said, noting that lawmakers are able to voice concerns about the programs.
However, two Democrats who have condemned the surveillance — Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Udall (D-CO) — say they have been unable to express public outrage over the measures, which are still classified. “I believe that when law-abiding Americans call their friends, who they call, when they call, and where they call from is private information,” Wyden said in a statement on Thursday. “Collecting this data about every single phone call that every American makes every day would be a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed outrage over the revelations and pledged to introduce legislation limiting the government’s surveillance capabilities.
An hour after President Obama’s remarks, NSA whistleblower Kirk Wiebe told Fox News that “aggregated metadata can be more revealing than content.” “It’s very important to realize that when an entity collects information about you, that includes locations, transactions, credit card transactions, travel, plans, easy path, on and off toll ways all of that can be used to track you day to day to the point where people can get insight into your intentions and what you are going to do next,” he said. “It is difficult to get that from content unless you exploit every piece and even then a lot of content is worthless.”