Associated Press
June 8, 2013 – 3:56 AM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) — For years, top officials of the Bush and Obama administrations dismissed fears about secret government data-mining by reassuring Congress that there were no secret nets trawling for Americans’ phone and Internet records.

“We do not vacuum up the contents of communications under the president’s program and then use some sort of magic after the intercept to determine which of those we want to listen to, deal with or report on,” then-CIA Director Michael Hayden told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in July 2006.

But on Friday, President Barack Obama himself acknowledged the existence of such programs even as he gave the government’s standard rationale to ease fears that Americans’ privacy rights are being violated.

“By sifting through this so-called metadata, they might identify potential leads of people who might engage in terrorism,” Obama said during an exchange with reporters at a health care event in San Jose, Calif.

Obama’s comments marked the first time a U.S. president publicly acknowledged the government’s electronic sleuthing on its citizens. They came in response to media reports and published classified documents that detailed the government’s secret mass collection of phone and Internet communications.

When top officials in the Obama and Bush administrations have been asked in recent years whether U.S. citizens’ communications were swept up as part of government surveillance, they’ve often responded with swift, flat denials. The denials were often carefully constructed to avoid any hints of the activities they were denying.

Even Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, sidestepped what he described as a kerfuffle about his administration’s secret electronic intelligence-gathering.

During a March 2006 appearance at the City Club of Cleveland, Bush described the NSA effort only as “a program that will enable us to listen from a known al-Qaida person and/or affiliate from making a phone call outside the United States in or inside the United States out, with the idea of being able to pick up quickly information for which to be able to respond in the environment we’re in.” He added: “I believe what I’m doing is constitutional, and I know it’s necessary. And so we’re going to keep doing it.”

His vice president, Dick Cheney, was more blunt during a radio appearance, denying the government was engaging in domestic surveillance.

“This is not a domestic surveillance program,” Cheney told radio host Hugh Hewitt, adding that “what we’re interested in are intercepting communications, one end of which are outside the United States and one end of which we have reason to believe is al-Qaida-related.”

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