BERLIN — President Barack Obama has defended U.S. government surveillance activities, saying it has saved lives in countries around the world. The president seeks to reassure Chancellor Angela Merkel and the German people, as well as Americans, about the nature of the program.
At a joint press conference with the German leader, Obama said the program of Internet surveillance, called PRISM, has been effective while the court-approved process has strictly limited encroachment on privacy.
"This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else. This is not a situation where we simply go into the Internet and start searching any way that we want," said Obama.
The president said the cautious execution of the surveillance systems has stopped at least 50 threats of terror attacks in the United States and other countries, including Germany.
Obama and Chancellor Merkel discussed this and other issues in their talks when they met earlier in the day. Merkel said the conversation had "brought us forward" toward a greater understanding of the programs and their value. But she said they would continue to discuss "issues of balance and proportionality."
Some Germans had expressed concern that PRISM reminded them of surveillance by the Stasi intelligence agency in the former communist East Germany.
Obama responded to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's angry announcement that he was suspending talks with the United States about keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond next year. The setback came one day after the U.S. announced that it was starting talks with the Taliban on Thursday.
The president told reporters he did not expect the Afghan peace process to be easy.
"We had anticipated that at the outset there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground," stated Obama. "That is not surprising. As I said, they have been fighting for a very long time."
On Syria, the president said the recently-completed G8 summit in Northern Ireland solidified Western leaders' determination to support the Syrian opposition while isolating extremists among them. He said he wants to end the war and replace President Bashar al-Assad with a political leader who will bring the country back together.
Merkel said Germany cannot supply arms to the Syrian opposition because it is forbidden by law from doing so. But she said there are other ways her government can help.
President Obama again said he wants to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, so that the United States is not on what he called a "perpetual war footing." He said he needs cooperation from Congress to close the facility -- a promise he made during his 2008 presidential election campaign.