Nightly News   |  June 07, 2013

Obama defends surveillance programs

Insisting that attempts at “100 percent security” will always come with inconveniences, Obama said “we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.” NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> good evening, everybody. i'm ann curry in for brian tonight. as there are more developments about the revelation that is our government is tapping phone records and gaining special access to e-mails and the internet. today the president defended the surveillance programs saying they are necessary to protect us from terrorism. and he added the internet surveillance program does not target americans. we begin tonight with our justice correspondent pete williams on b what we now know. pete, good evening.

>> reporter: ann, good evening to you. from the president on down, federal officials presented a united front in the past 24 hours . their message, we are not listening to your phone calls or reading your e-mails. in california for a summit with the chinese leader, president obama defended the two programs that exploded into public view as necessary trade-offs to defeat terrorists.

>> you can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy and zero inconvenience.

>> reporter: intelligence officials revealed more about how the systems work. the program aimed at telephone records gathers logs of phone numbers dialled by u.s. phone customers and dumps them into an enormous database maintained by the nsa. but director of national intelligence james clapper says the government is prohibited from indiscriminately sifting through it. in other words officials say no data mining .

>> nobody is listening to your telephone calls.

>> reporter: the data is checked he says only when there is a specific phone number or pattern of calls associated with foreign terrorists.

>> the only way to do that is if you have all the records in one place at that time. if you're looking for a needle in a haystack you need a haystack.

>> reporter: the latest highly secret program to be revealed allows the nsa to plug into servers run by the biggest internet company es to monitor suspected terror communications. clapper says it is intended to gather information about nonu.s. persons outside the united states . it cannot be used, he says, to target anyone located inside the u.s. and unlike the telephone program which vacuums up data on virtually every call made in the u.s., officials say the internet program taps into servers only to look at specific sites suspected of having a terrorism connection. but as shown in this powerpoint slide obtained by the washington post , that can take many forms including e-mail, chat, videos and photos. while president obama and members of both parties say congress was fully briefed on the programs, many are far from convinced that the government has the legal authority to gather up and store records of virtually every u.s. phone call .

>> i'd like to know how the president feels that my cell phone calls and your cell phone calls are relevant to an investigation. what investigation? what act or threat?

>> i welcome this debate. and i think it's healthy for our democracy. i think it's a sign of oma temperature ti. probably five, six years ago we may not have been having this debate.

>> reporter: some members of congress concerned about these programs say they will try to change the law to rein them in and several people are talking about filing civil liberties lawsuits.