President Obama compares NSA to airport security

US chief claims trade-offs need to be made to safeguard citizens.

President Obama has defended the collection of data by the NSA, comparing it to airport and highway security checkpoints that are used to protect citizens.

Speaking to PBS in a wide-ranging interview covering everything from the conflict in Syria to the collection of information from the NSA, the President said it was his job to protect the American way of life, including privacy.

"[In] the end, and what I've said, and I continue to believe, is that we don't have to sacrifice our freedom in order to achieve security. That's a false choice. That doesn't mean that there are not trade-offs involved in any given programme, in any given action that we take," he said in a televised interview with PBS' Charlie Rose.

"So all of us make a decision that we go through a whole bunch of security at airports, which when we were growing up that wasn't the case. And so that's a trade-off we make, the same way we make a trade-off about drunk driving. We say: Occasionally there are going to be checkpoints. They may be intrusive.'

"To say there's a trade-off doesn't mean somehow that we've abandoned freedom. I don't think anybody says we're no longer free because we have checkpoints at airports."

Obama also tried to ease the minds of US citizens by claiming the content of communications are not monitored.

"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," the President continued.

"They [authorities] cannot and have not, by law and by rule, and unless they and usually it wouldn't be 'they', it'd be the FBI go to a court, and obtain a warrant, and seek probable cause, the same way it's always been, the same way when we were growing up and we were watching movies, you want to go set up a wiretap, you got to go to a judge, show probable cause."

Obama did concede that Verizon customers are currently being subjected to having their phone call records logged something he referred to as the "2015 Program". He also confirmed the US does monitor foreign citizens as allegedly revealed by former NSA contractor turned whistle-blower, Edward Snowden.

"Program number one, called the 2015 Program, what that does is it gets data from the service providers like a Verizon in bulk, and basically you have 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," Obama said.

"There is a second program called the 702 program. And...that does not apply to any US person. Has to be a foreign entity. It can only be narrowly related to counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation, cyber hacking or attacks, and a select number of identifiers phone numbers, emails, et cetera.

"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 there can obtain content. But again, that does not apply to US persons. And it's only in these very narrow bands."

Obama declined to comment of whether the leaks by Snowden has damaged the security of the US, and any potential extradition.

"I'm not going to comment on prosecution. The case has been referred to the DOJ for criminal investigation and possible extradition. I will leave it up to them to answer those questions," he added.

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