US President Barack Obama speaks about the National
Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington.
President Barack Obama has banned US eavesdropping on the
leaders of close friends and allies and begun reining in the
vast collection of Americans' phone data in a series of reforms
triggered by Edward Snowden's revelations.
In a major speech, Obama took steps to reassure Americans and
foreigners alike that the United States will take into
account privacy concerns highlighted by former spy contractor
Snowden's damaging disclosures about the sweep of monitoring
activities of the National Security Agency (NSA).
"The reforms I'm proposing today should give the American
people greater confidence that their rights are being
protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement
agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe," he
While the address was designed to fend off concerns that US
surveillance has gone too far, Obama's measures were
Even as the White House put the final touches on the reform
plan this week, media outlets reported that the NSA gathers
nearly 200 million text messages a day from around the world
and has put software in almost 100,000 computers allowing it
to spy on those devices.
Obama promised that the United States would not eavesdrop on
the heads of state or government of close US friends and
allies. A senior administration official said that would
apply to dozens of leaders.
The step was designed to smooth over frayed relations
between, for example, the United States and Germany after
reports surfaced last year that the NSA had monitored the
mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed a state visit to
Washington in protest at the NSA spying on her email and
"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know
that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I
will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to
surveillance," Obama said.
Still, he said, US intelligence will continue to gather
information about the intentions of other governments, and
will not apologize simply because US spy services are more
Obama is trying to balance public anger at the disclosure of
intrusion into Americans' privacy with his commitment to
retain policies he considers critical to protecting the
United States. In doing so he bucked the advice of some of US
One of the biggest changes will be an overhaul of the
government's handling of bulk telephone "metadata" - lists of
million of phone calls made by Americans that show which
numbers were called and when. Obama said the program will be
ended as it currently exists.
In a nod to privacy advocates, the government will not hold
the bulk telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate
some intelligence officials.
While a presidential advisory panel had recommended that the
data be controlled by a third party such as the telephone
companies, Obama did offer a specific proposal for who should
store the phone information in the future.
He asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence
community to report back to him before the metadata program
comes up for reauthorization on March 28 on how to preserve
the necessary capabilities of the program, without the
government holding the metadata.
In addition, Obama said the US the government will need a
judicial review by the secret Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance (FISA) court every time intelligence agencies
want to check the database of millions of telephone calls
unless there is a true emergency.
"The biggest deal is going to the court each time," said
retired General Michael Hayden, a former director of both the
NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The usefulness of keeping metadata phone records has been
questioned by a review panel appointed by Obama. It found
that while the program had produced some leads for
counter-terrorism investigators, such information, had not
proven decisive in a single case.
Among a list of reforms, Obama also called on Congress to
establish an outside panel of privacy advocates for the FISA
Court that considers terrorism cases. The former chief judge
of the FISA court had opposed such a step.
Members of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
called for more restraint on the NSA.
"In particular, we will work to close the 'back-door
searches' loophole and ensure that the government does not
read Americans' emails or other communications without a
warrant," Senators Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich
said in a joint statement.
Obama made clear that his administration's anger at Snowden's
revelations has not abated. Snowden, living in asylum in
Russia, is wanted on espionage charges, although some
Americans would like him to be granted amnesty for exposing
secrets they feel needed to be made public.
"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to
dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations," Obama
said, taking the unusual step of mentioning the former NSA
contractor by name.
"The sensational way in which these disclosures have come out
has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods
to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways
that we may not fully understand for years to come," he