By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland
SAN JOSE, California | Fri Jun 7, 2013 3:19pm EDT
(Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Friday staunchly defended the sweeping U.S. government surveillance of Americans’ phone and internet activity, calling it a modest encroachment on privacy that was necessary to defend the United States from attack.
Obama said the programs were “trade-offs” designed to strike a balance between privacy concerns and keeping Americans safe from terrorist attacks. He said they were supervised by federal judges and Congress, and that lawmakers had been briefed.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program is about,” Obama told reporters during a visit to California’s Silicon Valley.
“In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother and how this is a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details, I think we’ve struck the right balance,” Obama said. “There are trade-offs involved.”
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that federal authorities have been tapping into the central servers of companies including Google, Apple and Facebook to gain access to emails, photos and other files allowing analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts.
That added to privacy concerns sparked by a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the National Security Agency had been mining phone records from millions of customers of a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.
The two reports launched a broad debate about privacy rights and the proper limits of government surveillance in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Obama, who pledged to run the most transparent administration in U.S. history, said in his first comments on the controversy that he came into office with a “healthy skepticism” about the surveillance programs but had come to believe “modest encroachments on privacy” were worth it.
Obama said his administration also had instituted audits and tightened safeguards to ensure the programs did not overstep their bounds.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Obama may be forced to broach the subject during his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a California summit on Friday, in which U.S. concerns about alleged Chinese hacking of American secrets were expected to be high on the agenda.
While members of the U.S. Congress are routinely briefed by the NSA on secret surveillance programs, it is not clear how much they knew about the widespread surveillance of private internet activity.
Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said he thought the administration had good intentions but stressed the program was “just too broad an overreach.”
“I think there ought to be some connection to suspicion, otherwise we can say that any intrusion on all of our privacy is justified for the times that we will catch the few terrorists,” Waxman told MSNBC. “Good intentions are not enough. We need protections against government intrusion that goes too far.”
‘PRISM’ SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM
The Washington Post said the surveillance program involving firms including Microsoft, Skype and YouTube, code-named PRISM and established under Republican President George W. Bush in 2007, had seen “exponential growth” under the Democratic Obama administration.
It said the NSA increasingly relies on PRISM as a source of raw material for its intelligence reports.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the report contained “numerous inaccuracies,” and some of the companies identified by the Washington Post denied that the NSA and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) had “direct access” to their central servers.
Microsoft said it does not voluntarily participate in government data collection and only complies “with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the program was “deeply disturbing” and went beyond what was constitutionally acceptable.
“It is a huge gathering of information by the federal government. The argument that it protects national security is unpersuasive,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Laura MacInnis, Roberta Rampton; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Jim Loney)