June 19 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama said government surveillance programs that sweep telephone numbers and Internet data have saved lives, as a controversy over the monitoring followed him on a trip overseas.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during a news conference with Obama in Berlin, said the two discussed a U.S. program, called Prism, that monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks.
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary e-mails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” Obama said. “We have struck the appropriate balance” between security and privacy.
Merkel said that as with other technological developments, “it’s important that we learn to use it with proportion.”
The National Security Agency’s operations have come under scrutiny after former contract worker Edward Snowden exposed the previously secret programs to the Guardian and the Washington Post. U.S. lawmakers and civil-liberties groups have sought more information on the two programs Snowden disclosed, Prism and another that collects phone call records from millions of U.S. citizens.
Obama said the two programs have helped uncover 50 terrorist plots.
“Lives have been saved,” he said.
Among the foiled conspiracies was a planned attack on the New York Stock Exchange, Deputy FBI Director Sean Joyce told a House committee yesterday.
Merkel said it’s important to have a debate on the surveillance programs to strike an “equitable balance” between security and personal freedom.
“There are people who have concerns about this, particularly about the possibility of data collection on a vast scale,” Merkel said. “The questions that aren’t clarified we will continue to discuss.”
Merkel’s comments come a week after European Union officials pressured Attorney General Eric Holder for answers and details about the program during a meeting between top justice officials in Dublin, Ireland.
Holder told reporters after the meeting that he had agreed to convene a working group of U.S. and EU officials to discuss the surveillance programs and their reach into European countries and their citizens. Legal and law enforcement officials are expected to participate in the working group.
“For me, this is the beginning of a dialogue,” European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told reporters on June 14. The group will work “to clarify together the remaining matters -- and I do think there are remaining matters.”
The news conference, which followed a meeting between Merkel and Obama and preceded a speech the U.S. president is to deliver this afternoon, also touched on the civil war in Syria and U.S. attempts to spur settlement talks between the Taliban and the government in Afghanistan.
With the U.S. stepping up military assistance to the rebels battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime Syria, Obama said the U.S. will keep pressing for negotiations and for Russia, which has backed Assad, to fully back those efforts.
At the conclusion of a Group of Eight nations meeting in Northern Ireland yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed assertions by the U.S., U.K. and France that Assad used chemical weapons and said arming the opposition would led to more bloodshed and putting extremists in power.
“At this point, President Putin believes that what would replace Assad would be worse than Assad himself,” Obama said. “What will become more and more apparent to him over the weeks and months, is that without a different government, you cannot bring peace.”
The U.S. and the Taliban announced yesterday the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, as the venue for talks intended to bring about a peace process in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he was suspending discussions with the U.S. on an accord governing the long-term presence of American military trainers to protest what he called “contradictions” between U.S. acts and statements in pursuing peace with the Taliban.
Obama said the U.S. anticipated there would be friction and that any effort to negotiate peace “is going to be a difficult process.”
“They’ve been fighting for a very long time,” Obama said when asked about Karzai’s action. “There’s enormous distrust.”