President Barack Obama – Remarks on NSA Wiretapping, PRISM
You know, when I came into this office, I made two commitments that are more important than any commitment I make: number one, to keep the American people safe and, number two, to uphold the Constitution, and that includes what I consider to be a Constitutional right to privacy and an observance of civil liberties.
Now, the programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they're classified, but they're not secret in the sense that, when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all 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 outset it's important to understand that your duly elected representatives have been consistently informed on exactly what we're doing.
Now, let me take the two issues separately. When it comes to telephone calls: nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That’s not what this program’s about, as was indicated--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’re not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called meta-data they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If the intelligence community then actually wants to listen to a phone call, they've got to go back to a federal judge, just like they would in a criminal investigation. So I want to be very clear: some of the hype that we've been hearing over the last day or so, nobody's listening to the content of people's phone calls.
You’ll remember when I made that speech a couple of weeks ago about the need for us to shift out of a perpetual war mindset. I specifically said that one of the things that we’re going to have to discuss and debate is, how are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some tradeoffs involved. I welcome this debate. And I think it’s healthy for our democracy, I think it’s a sign of maturity, because probably 5 years ago, 6 years ago, we might not’ve been having this debate. And I think it's interesting that there are some folks on the left, but also some folks on the right, who are now worried about, who weren’t very worried about it when it was a Republican president. I think that’s good, that we’re having this discussion. But i think it’s important for everybody to understand, and I think the American people understand, that there are some tradeoffs involved.
I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs; my team evaluated them; we scrubbed them thoroughly; we actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards. 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. Some other folks may have a different assessment of that. But I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100% security, and also then have 100% privacy, and zero inconvenience. We’re gonna have to make some choices as a society. And what I can say is that, in evaluating these programs, they make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity.
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