SAN JOSE -- President Barack Obama strongly defended the government's secret surveillance of people's phone records and Internet activities Friday, saying there are "a whole bunch of safeguards involved" and that Congress has repeatedly authorized the programs.
Commenting on the surveillance for the first time since news organizations revealed the sweeping National Security Agency programs this week, Obama highlighted limits to the programs to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens and said the surveillance has helped the government thwart terrorist attacks.
"They make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity," Obama said. He added that the programs are "under very strict supervision by all three branches of government and they do not involve listening to people's phone calls, do not involve reading the emails of U.S. citizens and U.S. residents."
Obama spoke at length about the need to find a proper balance between national security prerogatives and civil liberties.
"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience," Obama said. "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."
Obama's remarks came a day after the revelation that the NSA and FBI have been tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies in an effort to track foreign targets. Top-secret documents revealed by The Washington Post on Thursday show the agencies have been extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs as part of a program code-named PRISM. Until now, the program had not been made public.
Obama said Congress has been briefed on the program and it does not involve monitoring emails of U.S. citizens and residents.
The program was launched from the ashes of President George W. Bush's secret program of warrantless domestic surveillance in 2007, after news media disclosures, lawsuits and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court forced the president to look for new authority.
The NSA has also come under scrutiny this week as new details about the agency's telephone surveillance efforts have surfaced. On Wednesday, The Guardian newspaper first reported the agency has been collecting phone records of millions of American customers of Verizon, one of the nation's largest telecommunications providers.
Key lawmakers have buttressed the telephone surveillance effort. "Within the last few years, this program was used to stop a terrorist attack in the United States. We know that. It's important. It fills in a little seam that we have," House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told reporters.
But on Capitol Hill, there has been a stark contrast between the way lawmakers vociferously reacted to public revelations about the NSA's telephone surveillance efforts and their virtual silence on the PRISM program. Eighteen hours after the story broke, basically no leading members of Congress have weighed in on the program.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul has introduced legislation that would require a warrant before any government agency could search the phone records of Americans, according to The Associated Press.
The Kentucky Republican and tea party favorite said the bill introduced Friday is intended to stop the NSA from spying on U.S. citizens.