A press conference that began as a lighthearted plea for Californians to sign up for Obamacare ended with a defensive President Barack Obama justifying his administration's warrantless monitoring of millions of phone records.
"My assessment and my team's assessment about these (monitoring programs) was that they help us prevent terrorist attacks, and the modest encroachments on privacy that are involved — in getting phone numbers or data on call duration without a name attached or looking at content — that on net was worth us doing. Some folks may have a different assessment."
Obama insisted the program was more strictly regulated and less malevolent than has been reported. Various news accounts in the past two days have suggested it involved not only cell phone "metadata" but also emails, social media and other online accounts. Obama said that if Americans have issues with it, they should blame their representatives in Congress who authorized it.
"The programs that have been discussed over the last couple days in the press are secret in the sense that they're classified, but they're not secret in the sense that when it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program," Obama said.
"What you've got is two programs originally authorized by Congress, repeatedly authorized by Congress. These are programs that have been authorized by broad, bipartisan majorities repeatedly since 2006 ," Obama said. "Congress is continually briefed on how it's conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved. And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout."
The president repeatedly insisted that the U.S. government is not listening in on America's phone conversations.
"When it comes to telephone calls, nobody is listening to your calls. That's not what this program is about," he said. "What the intelligence community is doing is looking at phone numbers and durations of calls -- they're not looking at people's names and they're not looking at content."
Obama also attempted to assuage concerns about oversight, which has come up in criticisms of his administration's controversial targeted killing of suspected terrorists by drones, by repeatedly stressing the various levels of oversight involved.
"Not only does the court authorize the initial gathering of data, but I want to repeat, if anybody wanted to go further than just that top-line data and wanted to, for example, listen to (a journalist's) phone call, they'd have to go back to a federal judge."
The San Jose, Calif. press conference had been scheduled as a quick push for health care exchanges, websites set to open on October 1 where the uninsured can shop for health insurance under his administration's signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Upon arriving at the podium, Obama joked that it was clearly Friday, as his staff hadn't put his prepared remarks on the podium.
"There's only one problem, and that's that my remarks are not sitting here. People?!" Obama said lightheartedly. "Folks are sweating back there right now."
He read his written remarks on health care with such levity. But by the press conference's end, the tone became decidedly more serious. After offering a defense of the National Security Administration's phone snooping program, Obama attempted to leave the podium only to be drawn back by a reporter who shouted, "Do you welcome the leaks?"
"I don't welcome leaks because there's a reason why these programs are classified," Obama responded, after returning to the podium. "I think that there's a suggestion that any classified program is a quote-unquote "secret" program, which means that it's somehow suspicious."
"We have a system in which some information is classified and we have a system of checks and balances to make sure it's not abused. And if in fact this information ends up being dumped out willy-nilly without regard to risks to the program, risks to the people involved, in some cases on other leaks, risks to personnel in dangerous situations, then it's very hard for us to be as effective in protecting the American people."
Perhaps anticipating the response to those remarks, Obama couched them slightly.
"That's not to suggest to just say 'Trust me, we're doing the right thing, we know who the bad guys are,'" he said. "But my observation is that the people who are involved in America's national security, they take this work very seriously. They cherish our Constitution."
"In the abstract you can complain about Big Brother or how this a potential program run amok, but when you actually look at the details I think we've struck the right balance."