President Obama vigorously defended U.S. surveillance programs Wednesday, saying he has scrutinized the programs and has come to the conclusion that they strike the right balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.
After assuming office in 2008 with a “healthy skepticism” for post-9/11 intelligence gathering, believing that some of the techniques violated the nation’s civil liberties principles, Obama said he able to “examine and scrub how our intelligence services are operating and I have been convinced that we have struck the appropriate balance.”
Obama, questioned about the National Security Agency’s so-called PRISM program after a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, said “lives have been saved” because of the program.
“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted, not just in the United States, but also here in Germany,” he said at a joint press conference with Merkel.
Merkel said she had pressed Obama on the topic during their private meeting, noting that the German people have concerns that “there may be some kind of blanket, across-the-board, gathering of information” and stressed that there needs to be “balance and proportionality” in using Internet and phone records to spy on people.
Germans are particularly concerned that U.S. intelligence agencies may be collecting information on them and violating their privacy right because the PRISM program focuses on non-U.S. citizens outside of the country.
But Obama said the surveillance is narrowly executed, applying only to terrorism or “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” leads U.S. intelligence agencies have obtained.
“There are a few narrow categories, we get specific leads…” he said. “This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary emails of German citizens or American citizens and everybody else … this is a circumscribed, narrow system and all of it is done under the oversight of the courts.”
He also expressed an interest in “finding a way” to declassify aspects of the programs without compromising them.