WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Barack Obama has defended for the first time the National Security Agency's surveillance of telephone and Internet records, saying Americans should trust those who conduct the programs who are working to prevent new terrorist attacks.
Obama's remarks on the controversy swirling over government surveillance came at an event in California.
Saying "nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said his responsibility is to keep the American people safe, and uphold the Constitution and civil liberties.
Programs revealed in media reports, he said, were authorized by broad bipartisan majorities in Congress repeatedly since 2006, and are subject to limitations, but also necessary.
"What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls, they are not looking at people's names and they are not looking at content," Obama said. "But by sifting through this so-called metadata they may identify potential leads with respect to folks that might engage in terrorism."
Referring to what he called "hype" in media reports, Obama stressed that intelligence authorities must obtain further approvals from a special court to go beyond initial mass data gathering.
On the previously secret program called "Prism," revealed in newspaper reports, he said surveillance of the Internet does not apply to U.S. citizens or people living in the United States.
Referring to a speech he delivered at the National Defense University a few weeks ago, on counter-terrorism efforts, Obama said he welcomes a national debate about the challenge of protecting security, and civil liberties.
But he said previously classified surveillance methods revealed in the media help to anticipate and prevent terrorist attacks, and "modest encroachments" on privacy are part of protecting Americans.
"I think it is important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience, we're going to have to make some choices as a society," Obama said.
Obama recognized, as he put it, that "some people may have different views." He made a point of stressing that members of Congress were fully briefed on the methods and have the power to investigate any abuses.
The president also voiced concern about leaks that can negatively impact national security. Intelligence and national security professionals, he said, "can be trusted" with programs he described as "very narrowly circumscribed [and] focused."
If Americans can't trust not only the executive branch, but Congress and judges to ensure that the Constitution, due process and rule of law are being upheld, "then we're going to have some problems here."
Obama did not respond to a reporter's shouted question at the end of his remarks asking if the controversy over surveillance could undercut his talks with China's President Xi Jinping.