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President Obama today defended two top-secret government surveillance programs that cast a wide net over telephone and Internet traffic. Mr. Obama says the programs, which were brought to light by a pair of newspapers this week, have helped prevent terrorist attacks.
The president also stressed that the surveillance does not include eavesdropping on phone calls or monitoring Americans' Internet habits. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The sudden spotlight on the government's vast but, until now, hidden surveillance overwhelmed the White House message machine today. President Obama, who's traveling in California, wanted to talk about the promising new health insurance market taking shape there, but he was forced to answer questions about the newly revealed government collection of telephone and Internet records. Despite the shades of Big Brother, Obama insists he's tried to strike a balance between keeping Americans safe and protecting their privacy.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices.
HORSLEY: Neither of the surveillance programs making headlines this week is new. Both were launched under the Bush administration while Obama was serving in the U.S. Senate. The president says he came to the White House with a healthy skepticism of such efforts, but both the telephone and the Internet surveillance have continued on his watch largely intact.
OBAMA: My assessment, and my team's assessment, was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks.
HORSLEY: Obama argues that justifies what he calls the program's modest encroachment on privacy. He stressed the widespread telephone surveillance does not include listening in on phone calls, just gathering data on what numbers were dialed, when and for how long.
The second program, known as PRISM, collects data on Internet usage by tapping service providers like Google and Microsoft. PRISM targets only foreigners, not American citizens or people inside the United States. What's more, Obama notes the programs are regularly monitored by Congress and a special federal court.
OBAMA: And if people can't trust not only the executive branch, but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here.
HORSLEY: Despite such assurances, the surveillance is drawing criticism from both the left and the right. Obama reminded reporters of the speech he gave on terrorism just two weeks ago in which he said Americans will have to keep working hard in the years to come to balance our need for security and the freedoms that make us who we are.
OBAMA: I welcome this debate, and I think it's healthy for our democracy. I think it's a sign of maturity, because probably five years ago, six years ago, we might not have been having this debate.
HORSLEY: Even five or six days ago, such a debate would have been impossible because most Americans didn't know about the surveillance. The large-scale collection of phone records was brought to light only Wednesday by The Guardian newspaper. The Internet surveillance was reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post the following day.
Obama suggests just because the programs were secret should not automatically arouse suspicion. He says there was a good reason for keeping the programs classified.
OBAMA: Our goal is to stop folks from doing us harm. 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.
HORSLEY: The director of national intelligence also warned that exposing the surveillance will make it harder for the government to understand what its adversaries are up to. James Clapper adds there are strict limits on how intelligence agents can use the telephone records. He says most are never even looked at because they have no connection to foreign terrorist organizations. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.