Obama bans leader eavesdropping

22:21, Jan 17 2014

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.

The reforms, triggered by Edward Snowden's revelations, were announced in a major speech by Obama on Friday (NZT Saturday) in which he reassured Americans and foreigners that the US would take into account privacy concerns arising from the 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 said.

Obama promised that the United States would not eavesdrop on the heads of state or government of close US friends and allies, which a senior administration official said 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 to protest US tactics.

''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.


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.

The steps Obama put in motion were aimed at adapting regulations to keep up with rapid changes in surveillance technology that permitted NSA analysts to monitor private communications globally.

Among the list of reforms, Obama called on Congress to establish an outside panel of privacy advocates for the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court that considered terrorism cases. The former chief judge of the FISA court had opposed such a step.

While the speech was designed to address concerns that US surveillance had gone too far, Obama's measures were relatively limited.


One of the biggest changes will be an overhaul of the government's handling of bulk telephone ''metadata''. He said the programme would be ended as it currently existed.

In a nod to privacy advocates, the government would not hold the bulk telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate some intelligence officials.

In addition, Obama said the US government would need a judicial review before the database, which listed millions of telephone calls, could be queried, unless there was a true emergency.

Obama also decided that communications providers would be allowed to share more information with the public about government requests for data.

While a presidential advisory panel had recommended that the bulk data be controlled by a third party such as the telephone companies, Obama did not plan to offer a specific proposal for who should store the data in the future.

Obama has asked Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to report back to him before the metadata programme came up for reauthorisation on March 28 on how to preserve the necessary capabilities of the programme, without the government holding the metadata.

Obama made clear that his administration's anger at Snowden's revelations had not abated. Snowden, living in asylum in Russia, was wanted on espionage charges, although some Americans would like him to be granted amnesty for exposing secrets they felt needed to be made public.

''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,'' Obama said, mentioning the former NSA contractor by name.

Obama said US intelligence agencies would only use bulk collection of data for fighting terrorism protecting US troops and allies, and combating crime.