President Obama announces limits on NSA surveillance programme

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 12:19am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 January, 2014, 3:03pm

President Barack Obama is calling for ending the government’s control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, and he promises that “we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies.”

The president said Friday he will end the programme “as it currently exists.”

He called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the US.

The moves are more sweeping than many US officials had been anticipating.

Obama’s highly anticipated speech, after months of revelations about US spying by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, said intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the programme to invade privacy.

But Obama also said he believes critics of the programme have been right to argue that without proper safeguards, the collection could be used to obtain more information about Americans’ private lives and open the door to more intrusive programmes.

Obama said the US had a “special obligation” to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties.

He also sought to reassure allies and others overseas.

“The bottom line is that people around the world - regardless of their nationality - should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don’t threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreign leaders as well,” he said.

He added, “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.”

The leaks from Snowden, a fugitive now living in Russia, included revelations the US was monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sparking intense anger in Europe.

Obama mentioned “Mr Snowden” by name and said the “sensational” revelations of classified spying programmes could impact US operations for years to come.

While the president has said he welcomed the review of the nation’s sweeping surveillance programmes, it’s all but certain the study would not have happened without the leaks.

Obama warned, however, that “we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies.” He added, “We know that the intelligence services of other countries - including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures - are constantly probing our government and private sector networks.”

But he said the US must be held to a higher standard. “No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programmes, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account,” he said.

Key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options.

He also immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court’s permission before accessing such records.

Privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government’s control could minimise the risk of unauthorised or overly broad searches by the NSA.

The changes are expected to be met with criticism from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing Obama to keep the surveillance programmes largely intact.

Snowden faces espionage charges in the US but is currently living in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant him amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the US, but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.