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Obama Defends NSA Programs Amid Meeting With China's Leader


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Today, President Obama acknowledged and defended secret U.S. surveillance programs that have been revealed this week. He said judges approved them and the programs are audited to make sure they don't overreach.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to telephone calls, every member of Congress has been briefed on this program. With respect to all these programs, the relevant intelligence committees are fully briefed on these programs.

CORNISH: The president was responding to news reports that the government has been gathering piles of data from Facebook, Google and other tech companies, as well as phone data. The president is in California to meet with China's new leader, but these ongoing disclosures about surveillance threaten to distract from the intended message. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us from the California desert near Palm Springs.

And Ari, quick, give us a recap on all these disclosures.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: There have been two big stories this week, both showing the U.S. gathering massive amounts of data in secret. The first story, originally published in The Guardian newspaper, showed a court order telling Verizon to hand over data about phone calls. This was a secret court order and the data covered three months.

And what made this different from a typical court order in this area is that it was not targeted at a specific individual or even a network. It was a very broad, blanket order. And then, the second story, first published last night by The Washington Post, uncovered a top secret program called Prism that has been in operation, apparently, since 2007.

It allows the National Security Agency and the FBI to gather more detailed information - chat records, photos, other documents - from nine major Internet companies. The list includes Microsoft, Google, Skype, YouTube, titans of the internet. And this program, by law, is supposed to focus on communications by foreigners.

CORNISH: Now, we just heard a little clip of President Obama, but give us a sense, more broadly, how the administration is responding.

SHAPIRO: Well, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, put out a statement last night strongly defending the programs and attacking the leaks that brought them to light. He said that these programs have saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks. Then, this morning, President Obama addressed them at length, speaking for more than ten minutes.

And he talked, as he so often does, about balancing the need to protect Americans with the need for privacy and civil liberties.

OBAMA: You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we're going to have to make some choices as a society.

CORNISH: And Congress, what's been the response so far from them?

SHAPIRO: Well, there have been unusual alliances on both sides. On the defense side you have Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss saying this is essential. It has saved American lives. It has prevented terrorist attacks. And then, on the other side, you have Tea Party favorite, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, as well as others, saying these disclosures prove an argument they've been making for some time, that the country has gone too far and overreached.

CORNISH: Ari, this all comes as President Obama begins this two-day meeting with China's new president. How are these disclosures likely to affect that summit?

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, cyber-spying was near the top of the agenda, so this at least fits under that umbrella. But I'm not sure this is exactly how President Obama wanted to be discussing it. The U.S. is extremely concerned about Chinese hackers stealing American intellectual property, breaking into sensitive business, government and even defense networks.

That kind of spying is different but the issue of cyber espionage is something President Obama plans to bring up this weekend with the new Chinese President Xi Jinping. This was always going to be a tricky conversation because the main focus of this summit is to build a friendship between the two men so they can deal with crises that may arise down the road.

It's tough to build a friendship with someone while simultaneously accusing them of spying on you. And I think, if anything, the disclosure of these two programs makes the conversation even more challenging.

CORNISH: NPR's Ari Shapiro speaking with us from Southern California. Ari, thank you.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.