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NSA NOT listening to phone calls of Americans: Obama

June 18, 2013 14:57 IST

United States President Barack Obama has defended the controversial surveillance programme of the National Security Agency, saying such secret operations are 'transparent' as these were carefully supervised and controlled.

Edward Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst contractor, has leaked documents revealing the Obama administration's spying programmes that gather phone records of Americans and track the use of United States-based internet servers by foreigners.

"We should take pride in that because they are extraordinary professionals; they are dedicated to keeping the American people safe. What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls, and the NSA cannot target your emails and have not," Obama told the Charlie Rose Show on PBS channel.

"My job is both to protect the American people and to protect the American way of life, which includes our privacy. And so every programme that we engage in, what I have said is 'Let's examine and make sure that we're making the right tradeoffs'," he said in his interview, which took place on Father's Day, just hours before the First Family departed for Belfast for the G8 summit.

"If you are a US person, then NSA is not listening to your phone calls and it's not targeting your emails unless it's getting an individualised court order. That's the existing rule," he said in response to a question.  

During the course of the interview, Obama specifically referred to two programmes of the National Security Agency --2015 and 702.

Programme 2015, he said, gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically call pairs.

"You have my telephone number connecting with your telephone number. There are no names. There is no content in that database. All it is, is the number pairs, when those calls took place, how long they took place. So that database is sitting there," he said.

"Now, if the NSA through some other sources, maybe through the FBI, maybe through a tip that went to the CIA, maybe through the NYPD. Get a number that where there is a
reasonable, particularl suspicion that this might involve foreign terrorist activity related to Al Qaeda and some other international terrorist actors.

“Then, what the NSA can do is it can query that database to see did this number pop up? Did they make any other calls? And if they did, those calls will be spit out. A report will be produced. It will be turned over to the FBI. At no point is any content revealed because there is no content," Obama explained.

Asserting that the programme is "transparent", Obama said he is not (former US Vice President) Dick Cheney.

"My concern has always been not that we shouldn't do intelligence gathering to prevent terrorism, but rather are we setting up a system of checks and balances," he said.

"So, on this telephone programme, you have got a federal court with independent federal judges overseeing the entire programme. You have got Congress overseeing the programme, not just the intelligence committee and not just the judiciary committee -- but all of Congress had available to it before the last reauthorisation exactly how this programme works," he said.

Programme 702, he said, applies only to foreigners.

"It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers -- phone numbers, emails, etc," he said.

"Those -- and the process has all been approved by the courts -- you can send to providers -- the Yahoos or the Googles, what have you. And in the same way that you present essentially a warrant. And what will happen then is that you here can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to US persons. And it's only in these very narrow bands," he said.

Lalit K Jha In Washington
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