BERLIN — Trying to tamp down concerns about government over-reach, President Barack Obama on Wednesday defended U.S. Internet and phone surveillance programs as narrowly targeted efforts that have saved lives and thwarted at least 50 terror threats.
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through ordinary emails” of huge numbers of citizens in the United States or elsewhere, the president declared during a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He called it as a “circumscribed, narrow” surveillance program.
“Lives have been saved,” Obama said, adding that the program has been closely supervised by the courts to ensure that any encroachment of privacy is strictly limited.
Merkel, for her part, said it was important to continue debate about how to strike “an equitable balance” between providing security and protecting personal freedoms.
“There has to be proportionality,” she said. She added that their discussion on the matter Wednesday was “an important first step” over striking a balance.
Merkel appeared to be looking to avoid a public rift with Washington over the surveillance program, particularly since Germans benefit from U.S. intelligence. Much of the German criticism of the program has come from her junior coalition partners, facing the prospect of losses in the September election and looking for an issue.
The two leaders spoke to the media after meeting privately on a range of issues confronting U.S. and European leaders, including the fragile effort to bring peace in Afghanistan, where peace talks with the Taliban are in the offing to find ways to end the nearly 12-year war. Earlier Wednesday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended talks with the United States on a new security deal to protest the way his government was being left out of the initial peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Obama said the U.S. had anticipated “there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground. That’s not surprising. They’ve been fighting there for a long time” and mistrust is rampant.
Karzai said Wednesday that peace talks cannot begin amid “fighting and bloodshed.” But Obama said it was important to pursue a parallel track toward reconciliation even as the fighting continues, and it would up to the Afghan people whether that effort ultimately bears fruit.
On another world trouble spot, the 2-year-old Syrian civil war, the president declined to provide details on the type of military support the U.S. will provide to opposition forces. But he said the administration had been consistent in working toward the over-riding goal of a Syria that is “peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate, tolerant.”
“I cannot and will not comment on specifics around our programs related to the Syrian opposition,” he said.
The president said while world leaders at the just-completed Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland could not agree on whether Syrian President Bashar Assad must go, he believes Assad cannot regain legitimacy.
And the president offered reassurances on another issue of particular concern in Germany. In response to a question from a German reporter, Obama said the United States doesn’t use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones to strike terrorist targets. He said he knows there have been some reports in Germany speculating that was the case, but it’s not so.