President Obama has offered a defense of Verizon's handing over mobile phone metadata to the US National Security Agency and the allegations that the same agency's PRISM program is tapping into the servers of several major internet service providers.
"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 as a society," Obama said, The Washington Post reports.
Obama was speaking on Friday morning in San José, California, on his way to a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping in the southern California town of Palm Springs. After delivering prepared remarks about the Affordable Health Care Act (aka Obamacare), RT reports, he fielded a question about the roiling NSA imbroglio.
"The programs are secret in the sense that they are classified," the president said, "but they are not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program."
In what can reasonably be called an attempt to share the responsibility for the furore with lawmakers, he said, "With respect to all of these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs. These are programs that have been authorized by broad bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006. And so I think at the onset it is important to understand that your dually elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing."
Obama also downplayed the intrusiveness of the Verizon metadata provision. "You could complain about big brother and how this is a potential program run amok," he said, "but when you actually look at the details, I think we strike the right balance."
Those details, he said, would reveal that the surveillance program is a necessary tool. "They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said, claiming that the surveillance is conducted "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 US citizens and US residents."
He admitted that when he first took office, he was wary of such surveillance. His changed his mind, however. "We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards," he said. "But my assessment and my team's assessment was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks. And the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved in getting phone numbers or duration without a name attached and not looking at content, that on net it was worth us doing."
Whether Obama's comments will turn down the volume on the outcry over the NSA's surveillance programs remains to be seen. But it is an inarguable irony that two of the top topics on the agenda for his meeting with Xi are cybersecurity and human rights. ®