Obama backs internet and phone monitoring

The US president faced anger from the public, rights groups and politicians after top-secret documents leaked to international media revealed the National Security Agency and FBI were monitoring phone calls and internet.

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New York // Barack Obama yesterday defended his administration's phone and internet surveillance programmes as necessary for national security.

The US president faced anger from the public, rights groups and politicians after top-secret documents leaked to international media revealed the National Security Agency (NSA) and FBI were monitoring phone calls and internet.

"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls. That's not what this programme is about," Mr Obama said in California's Silicon Valley.

He said the right balance had been struck between keeping the US safe from terrorist attacks and protecting citizen's privacy.

Mr Obama said monitoring phone numbers and data on calls - but not conversations - had been repeatedly authorised by Congress and was overseen by a special court.

He said another programme, Prism, which taps into the servers of nine top internet firms including Apple, Facebook and Google, was not aimed at anyone in the US.

The Guardian newspaper also reported yesterday that the British spy agency, GCHQ, has had access to the internet companies through Prism since at least June 2010.

"This does not apply to US citizens. And it does not apply to people living in the United States," Mr Obama said.

"I think it's important to recognise that you can't have 100 per cent security and also then have 100 per cent privacy and zero inconvenience. We're going to have to make some choices as a society."

But civil liberties and privacy groups have raised alarm at the two programmes, reported by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers, warning they are "Orwellian" and could be unconstitutional.

The US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has confirmed the content of the leaked Prism document, and said on Thursday night he would declassify elements of the programme.

It was a move aimed at addressing the quickly rising public uproar about the scale of the government's secret surveillance aimed at millions of Americans' telecommunications records.

Mr Clapper's remarks came only hours after US officials were forced by another leaked document to acknowledge the existence of a separate seven-year-old programme that collects vast amounts of data on domestic phone calls.

He said both programmes were legal and necessary to thwart terrorists. He called the disclosure of Prism "reprehensible" and said the phone-monitoring leak would alert America's enemies and make it harder to fight them.

"The unauthorised disclosure of a top secret US court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation," Mr Clapper said.

The Guardian posted slides from a 41-page Prism PowerPoint presentation apparently used to train intelligence officers.

It appeared to show that many of Silicon Valley's largest companies, including Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Skype, Apple, PalTalk, AOL, and YouTube voluntarily assist with the covert data collection.

Prism began operating several years ago, according to the slides, and grew out of the NSA's desire to keep up with the rapid growth of social media, sources told The New York Times.

The tech companies all denied that they volunteered information to the US government.

"We have never heard of Prism," said an Apple spokesman. "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 and Microsoft also said their companies only disclose what is legally required.

The internet-monitoring programme involving the tech giants allows federal agents to spy on communications with foreigners.

Its legal basis is the so-called Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) amendment of 2008, which requires the government to obtain an order from a secret court to conduct surveillance on anyone living outside the US or Americans communicating with people abroad.

The dual leaks on Thursday sparked bipartisan outrage from legislators who have long questioned the government's surveillance programmes, which were vastly expanded during the presidency of George W Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks, but have grown to huge proportions in Mr Obama's tenure. Officials from Mr Clapper's office, the justice department, the NSA and FBI briefed 27 senators for two hours late on Thursday at an unplanned session prompted by severe criticism and uncertainty about the programme.

The deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Jameel Jaffer, called the internet spying programme "beyond Orwellian", and the group urged supporters to "be part of a strong public outcry".

The leaked phone data document, an order by the secret court, compels the phone provider Verizon to give the government data on all calls made on its network in the US between April 25 and July 19 this year.

The content of the calls is not recorded, but the numbers of both parties, time and duration are all included.

A former NSA employee estimated the agency collected such records on three billion calls each day. That volume allows the NSA's computers to analyse the data for patterns of unusual and suspicious behaviour and could alert agents to terrorist plots.

Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, claimed on Thursday that the programme had stopped a terrorist attack on US soil, although he would provide no details.

But other legislators vowed to use the controversy to give new urgency to the debate on the trade-off between civil liberties and security.

* with additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Associated Press