WASHINGTON — President Obama offered a robust defense of newly revealed surveillance programs Friday as more classified secrets spilled into public, complicating a meeting with China’s new president set to focus partly on human rights and cybersecurity.
Obama departed from his script at a health-care event in California to try to reassure Americans that he had not abused government authority by collecting telephone-call logs and foreigners’ email. But the disclosure hours later of secret contingency planning to target other countries for possible cyberattacks made his get-together with President Xi Jinping later in the day all the more awkward because cyberattacks by the Chinese on U.S. targets are high on the U.S. agenda.
The latest of three documents published over three days by the British newspaper The Guardian added to the understanding of the Obama administration’s approach to national security in an age of multifaceted threats and became another factor in the renewed debate over the balance between privacy and security.
The identity of the person who gave those documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post is not known, but The Post has described its source as a career intelligence officer angry at “what he believes to be a gross intrusion on privacy” by the Obama administration.
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Once a critic of President George W. Bush’s hawkish policies, Obama was ready with an explanation for why he has preserved and extended some of them when a reporter asked him if he could assure Americans that the government was not building a database of their personal information.
“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama said. “That’s not what this program’s about.”
But he argued that “modest encroachments on privacy” were “worth us doing” to protect the country, and those programs.
A National Security Agency (NSA) telephone-surveillance program collects phone numbers and the duration of calls, not the content, he said. An Internet surveillance program targets foreigners living abroad, not Americans, he added.
“There are some trade-offs involved,” Obama said. “I came with a healthy skepticism about these programs. My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly.” In the end, he concluded that “they help us prevent terrorist attacks.”
The disclosures united liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans in accusing him of abandoning values he once espoused.
“We believe the large-scale collection of this information by the government has a very significant impact on Americans’ privacy, whether senior government officials recognize that fact or not,” Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, both Democrats, wrote in a joint response to the president’s remarks.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat and an Obama ally from Illinois, rebuffed the president’s contention that Congress had been kept abreast of the programs, saying only a few top leaders are regularly briefed.
“To say that there’s congressional approval suggests a level of information and oversight that’s just not there,” he said in an interview. He added that the sort of data mining revealed in recent days “really pushes the role of government to the limit.”
It was not clear whether there would be a popular backlash to the programs beyond some outrage on Twitter and Facebook, and even critics such as Durbin were skeptical.
Many Americans interviewed nationwide Friday shared concerns about their civil liberties but expressed a certain grudging resignation as well.
In Congress, the main vehicle for any changes, a reauthorization of the 1978 law that created the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, passed in December and is not due for renewal for five years. During the debate, the Senate voted on a bipartisan basis to reject amendments to force transparency or curtail surveillance.
Hours after Obama spoke, The Guardian posted online a copy of a classified directive Obama signed last year laying out conditions under which the president could order cyberattacks against another country, akin to the attacks on Iran’s uranium-enrichment plant.
The directive ordered the government to “identify potential targets of national importance” against which offensive cyberoperations “can offer a favorable balance of effectiveness and risk as compared with other instruments of national power.” That means, in essence, that the Pentagon’s Cyber Command and the intelligence agencies would maintain lists of targets around the world that could be damaged more effectively, and more covertly, by a computer attack than by a missile or bomb attack.
As previously reported, the document says only the president can authorize offensive cyberoperations, just as only he can authorize the use of nuclear weapons. The directive also reserves the right to take “anticipatory action against imminent threats” to protect critical infrastructure in the U.S., including utilities, cellphone networks and financial markets.
That raised the possibility that the U.S. could strike first if it feared a large attack from China or another country. Officials have blamed China for a variety of computer spying and cyberattacks, a subject on Obama’s agenda with Xi in Southern California.
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said the revelations would not hinder the president’s discussions with Xi.