Whether the government has that power and whether it uses Prism this way remains a closely guarded secret.
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A few months after Obama took office in 2009, the surveillance debate reignited in Congress because the NSA had crossed the line. Eavesdroppers, it turned out, had been using their warrantless wiretap authority to intercept far more emails and phone calls of Americans than they were supposed to.
Obama, no longer opposed to the wiretapping, made unspecified changes to the process. The government said the problems were fixed.
“I came in with a healthy skepticism about these programs,” Obama explained recently. “My team evaluated them. We scrubbed them thoroughly. We actually expanded some of the oversight, increased some of the safeguards.”
Years after decrying Bush for it, Obama said Americans did have to make tough choices in the name of safety.
“You can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience,” the president said.
Obama’s administration, echoing his predecessor’s, credited the surveillance with disrupting several terrorist attacks. Leading figures from the Bush administration who endured criticism during Obama’s candidacy have applauded the president for keeping the surveillance intact.
Jason Weinstein, who recently left the Justice Department as head of its cybercrime and intellectual property section, said it’s no surprise Obama continued the eavesdropping.
“You can’t expect a president to not use a legal tool that Congress has given him to protect the country,” he said. “So, Congress has given him the tool. The president’s using it. And the courts are saying ‘The way you’re using it is OK.’ That’s checks and balances at work.”
Schneier, the author and security expert, said it doesn’t really matter how Prism works, technically. Just assume the government collects everything, he said.