WASHINGTON -- President Obama vigorously defended the government's newly disclosed collection of massive amounts of information from phone and Internet records on Friday as a necessary defense against terrorism, and assured Americans, "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls."
"We have to make choices as a society," Obama said in his first remarks about revelations of the huge scope of government surveillance. "It's important to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."
It was revealed late Wednesday that the National Security Agency has been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of U.S. phone customers.
The leaked document first reported by the Guardian newspaper gave the NSA authority to collect from all of Verizon's land and mobile customers, but intelligence experts said the program swept up the records of other phone companies too.
Another secret program revealed Thursday scours the Internet usage of foreign nationals overseas who use any of nine U.S.-based Internet providers such as Microsoft and Google.
Obama, responding to questions at a health-care event in San Jose, Calif., said safeguards are in place.
"They help us prevent terrorist attacks," Obama said of the surveillance programs. He said he has concluded that prevention is worth the "modest encroachments on privacy."
Obama said he came into office with a "healthy skepticism" of the program and increased some of the "safeguards" on the programs. He said Congress and federal judges have oversight on the program, and a judge would have to approve monitoring of the content of a call and it's not a "program run amok."
"If people can't trust not only the executive branch but also don't trust Congress and don't trust federal judges to make sure that we're abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we're going to have some problems here," the president said.
Declaring that "nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said government officials are "looking at phone numbers and durations of calls."
"They are not looking at people's names, and they are not looking at content. But by sifting through this so-called metadata, they might identify potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism," Obama said.
The president's remarks followed an unusual late-night statement Thursday from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who denounced the leaks of highly classified documents that revealed the programs and warned that America's security will suffer. He called the disclosure of a program that targets foreigners' Internet use "reprehensible," and said the leak of another program that lets the government collect Americans' phone records would change America's enemies' behavior and make it harder to understand their intentions.
"The unauthorized disclosure of a top secret U.S. court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation," Clapper said of the phone-tracking program.
At the same time, Clapper offered new information about the secret programs.
"I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counterterrorism program and the principles that govern its use," he said.
Among the previously classified information about the phone records collection that Clapper revealed:
The Obama administration's defense of the two programs came as members of Congress were vowing to change a program they voted to authorize and exasperated civil liberties advocates were crying foul, questioning how Obama, a former constitutional scholar who sought privacy protections as a U.S. senator, could embrace policies aligned with President George W. Bush, whose approach to national security he had vowed to leave behind.
Clapper alleged that articles about the Internet program "contain numerous inaccuracies." He did not specify.
Senior administration officials defended the programs as critical tools and said the intelligence they yield is among the most valuable data the U.S. collects. Clapper said the Internet program, known as PRISM, can't be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the U.S., and that data accidentally collected about Americans is kept to a minimum.
Leaders of Congress' intelligence panels dismissed the furor over what they said was standard three-month renewal to a program that's operated for seven years. Committee leaders also said the program recently helped thwart what would have been a significant domestic terrorist attack.