President Obama on Friday defended the government’s collection of data on the phone records of millions of Americans, saying that it was a modest encroachment on privacy and one he thinks is both lawful and justified in order to identify terrorists plotting to attack the United States.
Obama emphasized that the government does not collect information on individual callers or eavesdrop on Americans’ conversations without a warrant. He said he would welcome a debate on the classified surveillance effort as well as the previously secret workings of a second program that gathers the e-mails and other digital content of targeted foreigners outside the United States from major American Internet companies.
The programs “make a difference in our capacity to anticipate and prevent possible terrorist activity,” Obama said.
Revelations about the programs in The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper have opened up a debate that previously had been limited to the cryptic warnings of some members of Congress who were briefed on but troubled by the surveillance efforts. Some lawmakers who do not serve on the intelligence committees said they had no knowledge of the programs.