President Obama, in a strong defense of his efforts to monitor Americans’ telephone calls and other communications, argued that additional security certainly is worth the loss of some constitutional privacy rights, and further, he assured the nation that “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.”
But he also confirmed that it is the content of telephone calls that is being targeted, and there’s a process available for investigators who want to listen in: just get permission from a court.
While answering questions at an appearance in California, where he promoted his health care takeover, he said, “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.”
Then he continued, “But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they may identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism. If these folks – 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.”
But he also admitted, “And so not only does that court authorize the initial gathering of data, but I want to repeat, if anybody in government wanted to go further than just that top-line data and wanted to, for example, listen to Jackie Calmes’ phone call, they’d have to go back to a federal judge and, and, and indicate why, in fact, they were doing further – further probing.”
Expressing frustration with having to answer questions, he said, “I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference.”
As he was making the comments, a range of new issues arose.
One report said the U.S. Postal Service has developed a program that photographs the front and back of every letter mailed through its system, and that was how a suspect was identified in the case in which several ricin-laced letters were mailed.
The Financial Times documented how the U.S. spends $80 billion a year on intelligence alone, and “every day, 854,000 U.S. civil servants, military personnel and private contractors are scanned into high-security government offices to do intelligence work.”
This is on top of a report that the Justice Department is trying to keep secret a court decision that ruled the government violated the spirit of federal surveillance laws and engaged in “unconstitutional spying.”
Bloomberg reported that the feds are vacuuming up literally billions of telephone calls in their search for data on Americans.
The Guardian reported the NSA’s Prism program allows agents to search “history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats.”
And The Washington Post said federal agents have direct access to information in systems run by Apple, YouTube, Skype, AOL, PalTalk, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google.
This follows revelations that the government was getting details on those billions of telephone calls by customers of Verizon and other telephone companies.
In a report in the Wall Street Journal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told people to chill.
“Everyone should just calm down and understand this isn’t anything that is brand new,” he said.
But talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh said with the evidence that is being uncovered, it appears the U.S. is in the middle of a coup.
Obama also said that Congress is fully aware of what’s going on.
“Every member of Congress has been briefed on this program,” he said.
Congress response? Not so.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore, disputed the president’s claim, revealing that only handpicked members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were briefed on the program.
Merkley said he knew of the program because he acquired “special permission” to examine the documentation after learning of it from another person.
“I knew about the program because I specifically sought it out,” Merkley told MSNBC. “It’s not something that’s briefed outside the Intelligence Committee. I had to get special permission to find out about the program. It raised concerns for me. … When I saw what was being done, I felt it was so out of sync with the plain language of the law and that it merited full public examination, and that’s why I called for the declassification.”
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., took to Twitter to express his frustration with being left out of the loop. He wrote, “False. I have never been briefed on this.”
Rep. Billy Long, R-La., tweeted, “Not quite!”
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told Politico he learned of the program after he asked for a briefing under “classified circumstances” after Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., urged him to do so.
According to the report, Durbin said the “average member” of Congress probably wouldn’t have known about the extent of the phone and Internet surveillance.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, told Politico he “hadn’t been briefed on this particular issue.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., explained that he heard about the phone monitoring on the news.
The press office for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., an author of the Patriot Act, tweeted, “Obama’s claim that ‘every Member of Congress’ was briefed is FALSE.”
Also, After the NSA spied on U.S. customers, it even shared Americans’ calling records with British security agencies, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the program.
The data collected by the NSA could be used to track millions of Americans’ locations through their cell phones at any time.
According to two former U.S. intelligence officials, the NSA has also seized private emails and phone calls of innocent Americans with no ties to terrorism. They claimed the matter was reported to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the private information destroyed.
U.K. Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke several stories on the surveillance programs, told CNN’s Piers Morgan “the Obama administration has been very aggressive about bullying and threatening anybody who thinks about exposing it or writing about it or even doing journalism about it.”
As WND reported, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper may have misled lawmakers when he told a Senate committee hearing three months ago the National Security Agency does not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
On March 12, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Clapper at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Clapper responded: “No, sir.”
Wyden continued by asking, “It does not?”
Clapper stated: “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect –but not wittingly.”
However, Obama was adamant in his defense today.
“I think it’s important for everybody to understand, and I think the American people understand, that there are some trade-offs involved. You know, I came in with a health[y] 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,” he said.
“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, you know, net, it was worth us doing.
“I think, on balance, we – you know, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about. But again, this – these programs are subject to congressional oversight and congressional reauthorization and congressional debate. And if there are members of Congress who feel differently, then they should speak up.”
He said oversight is in place, from Congress to the federal judiciary.
“That’s not to suggest that, you know, you just say, trust me, we’re doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are. And the reason that’s not how it works is because we’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight,” he said.
“And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”