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NSA spokesperson Judith Emmel said Saturday that "current technology simply does not permit us to positively identify all of the persons or locations associated with a given communication." She said it may be possible to determine that a communication "traversed a particular path within the Internet," but added that "it is harder to know the ultimate source or destination, or more particularly the identity of the person represented by the TO:, FROM: or CC: field of an e-mail address or the abstraction of an IP address."
Emmel said communications are filtered both by automated processes and NSA staff to make sure Americans’ privacy is respected.
"This is not just our judgment, but that of the relevant inspectors general, who have also reported this," she said.
Amid unsettling reports of government spying, Obama assured the nation Friday that "nobody is listening to your telephone calls. What the government is doing, he said, is digesting phone numbers and the durations of calls, seeking links that might "identify potential leads with respect to folks who might engage in terrorism."
While Obama on Friday said the aim of the programs is to make America safe, he offered no specifics about how the surveillance programs have done that. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., on Thursday said the phone records sweeps had thwarted a domestic terror attack, but he also didn’t offer specifics.
The revelations have divided Congress and led civil liberties advocates and some constitutional scholars to accuse Obama of crossing a line in the name of rooting out terror threats.
Obama, himself a constitutional lawyer, strove to calm Americans’ fears but also to remind them that Congress and the courts had signed off on the surveillance.
"I think the American people understand that there are some trade-offs involved," he said when questioned by reporters at a health care event in San Jose, Calif.
Obama echoed intelligence experts — both inside and outside the government — who predicted that potential attackers will find other, secretive ways to communicate now that they know that their phone and Internet records may be targeted.
An al-Qaida affiliated website on Saturday warned against using the Internet to discuss issues related to militant activities in three long articles on what it called "America’s greatest and unprecedented scandal of spying on its own citizens and people in other countries."
"Caution: Oh brothers, it is a great danger revealing PRISM, the greatest American spying project," wrote one member, describing the NSA program that gathers information from major U.S. Internet companies.
"A highly important caution for the Internet jihadis ... American intelligence gets information from Facebook and Google," wrote another.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., who served on the House Intelligence Committee for a decade, said "the bad folks’ antennas go back up and they become more cautious for a period of time."
"But we’ll just keep coming up with more sophisticated ways to dig into these data. It becomes a techies game, and we will try to come up with new tools to cut through the clutter," he said.
Hoekstra said he approved the phone surveillance program but did not know about the online spying.
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
Follow Lara Jakes Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP.
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