WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama on Friday defended US spy agency programs which trawl phone and Internet data, saying they were legal, necessary to combat terror and balanced privacy and security.
The White House meanwhile insisted that revelations about secret US intelligence operations would not undercut his message on cyber hacking and espionage at a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California.
Obama sought to assure Americans they were not threatened by spy agencies tasked with protecting them, after two days of dramatic reports and leaks.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said in San Jose, California, hitting out at what he said was “hype” over reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) logs details of millions of domestic calls.
Obama also defended a program called PRISM in which NSA and FBI agents are tapping into the servers of nine US Internet giants, including Facebook, Google, YouTube, Apple and others, as they try to subvert terror plots originating abroad.
“This does not apply to US citizens. And it does not apply to people living in the United States,” Obama said.
Civil liberties and privacy groups have raised alarm at the two programs, reported by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers, warning they are “Orwellian” and could be unconstitutional.
Obama said he welcomed the debate, but warned that the programs had previously been kept under wraps to avoid tipping off America’s enemies, and said they made only “modest encroachments” on privacy.
“I think it’s important to recognize that 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,” he said.
He repeatedly argued that Congress had been kept fully apprised of the activity, and had voted to authorize it. Federal and secret intelligence courts were also used to ensure that the authorities were not abused, he said.
The Washington Post, citing a career intelligence officer, reported late Thursday that the NSA had direct access to Internet firm servers, to track an individual’s web presence via audio, video, photographs and emails.
The paper said the leak came from a career intelligence officer “with firsthand experience of these systems and horror at their capabilities.”
“They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type,” the officer was quoted as saying.
Internet giants however denied opening their doors for US spy agencies.
“We have never heard of PRISM,” said Apple spokesman Steve Dowling.
“We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers, and any government agency requesting customer data must get a court order.”
Facebook’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan said the huge social network did not provide any access to government organizations.
Experts said the program could be so close-held that only lawyers at the firms or a small number of administrators might know about it, or it could be going on covertly.
“There is something deeply mysterious about this,” said Joseph Hall, senior technologist with the Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights activist group.
Obama was due to meet Xi late Friday and again Saturday morning for their summit at the Annenberg retreat in California, called to try to forge a personal connection with China’s new leader.
Aides had said previously that he planned to tell Xi he must take responsibility for any cyber hacking and espionage operations — against US military or commercial targets — emanating from China.
The White House denied that exposed details of the secret US operations would embarrass Obama or undercut his message.
“This is a pretty good illustration of the type of conversation we want to have about respecting civil liberties and protecting the constitutional rights of the people that you govern,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“What the president did was he put in place a very strict oversight regime, one that he strengthened when he took office — one that constrained his own ability, constrained his own authority.
“I think that is a testament to the strength of our system of government,” Earnest said aboard Air Force One.
Claims of the Internet spy operation broke as Washington reeled from a Guardian newspaper report on Wednesday detailing an apparent operation by the NSA to capture millions of domestic phone records.