“I will say that our nation’s defense depends in part on the fidelity of those entrusted with our nation’s secrets,” he said. “If any individual who objects to government policy can take it in their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will never be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy,” Obama said. “Moreover, the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come.”
Obama also suggested that he was the right person to find the balance between privacy and security.
“I have often reminded myself that I would not be where I am today were it not for the courage of dissidents, like Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], who were spied on by their own government; as a president who looks at intelligence every morning, I also can’t help but be reminded that America must be vigilant in the face of threats,” he said.
Obama ordered more transparency in the FBI’s use of national security letters to gather data on the target of an investigation, but he also made clear the need to keep the metadata program operational in one form or another.
“One of the 9/11 hijackers — Khalid al-Mihdhar — made a phone call from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safe-house in Yemen,” Obama said. “NSA saw that call, but could not see that it was coming from an individual already in the United States. The telephone metadata program under Section 215 was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible.”
Obama said the program could help “if a bomb goes off” in a city and law enforcement is racing to prevent additional attacks. “Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort,” he said.
But he said that it makes sense to keep the information in private hands, after a transition period, while preserving the government’s ability to mine the data. In the meantime, judicial oversight will be required to access the data unless there is “a true emergency,” he said.
Obama also said he will work with Congress on exactly how to proceed.
“On all of these issues, I am open to working with Congress to ensure that we build a broad consensus for how to move forward, and am confident that we can shape an approach that meets our security needs while upholding the civil liberties of every American,” he said.
The president also sought to quell the international furor, reiterating that overseas communications are also limited and not used for commercial or other purposes outside of security.
“The bottom line is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.