WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Barack Obama banned U.S. eavesdropping
on the leaders of close friends and allies on Friday and began reining
in the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a series of limited
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 said.
While the address was designed to fend off concerns that U.S.
surveillance has gone too far, Obama's measures fell short of
dismantling U.S. electronic spying programs.
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
Obama promised that the United States will not eavesdrop on the
heads of state or government of close U.S. friends and allies,
"unless there is a compelling national security purpose." 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 cellphone of German Chancellor
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed a state visit to
Washington in protest of the NSA spying on her email and cellphone.
"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
Still, he said, U.S. intelligence will continue to gather
information about the intentions of other governments, and will not
apologize simply because U.S. spy services are more effective.
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 U.S. intelligence leaders.
Some of his proposals drew skepticism from Republicans in Congress
who expressed concerns that he was going too far in reining in
essential spying programs.
"While we will need much more detail on the president's new policies
before passing final judgment, I am concerned that some of his
proposals go too far, limiting our ability to protect the nation
with little benefit to civil liberties of Americans," said
Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee.
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 as it currently exists will end.
In a nod to privacy advocates, the government will not hold the bulk
telephone metadata, a decision that could frustrate some
A presidential advisory panel had recommended that the data be
controlled by a third party such as the telephone companies, but
Obama did not propose who should store the phone information in the
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
In addition, Obama said the U.S. the government will need a judicial
review by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (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 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 U.S. 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
"Given the fact of an open investigation, I'm not going to dwell on
Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations," Obama said, making a rare
mention of 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 added.
Obama was silent on a number of his review group's recommendations,
including some that called for a rebalancing of the intelligence
agencies' sometimes conflicting missions to enhance cybersecurity
while conducting computer spying and offensive operations.
The group had asked the administration to end efforts to weaken
cryptography so that spies and law enforcement can more easily break
The panel also sought a wholesale change to the government's
practice of developing or buying information about weaknesses in
The White House did not address those points, to the disappointment
of outside experts who feel the United States is making Internet
"NSA sabotage of crypto standards was the thing most conspicuously
absent for me," University of Pennsylvania cryptographer Matt Blaze
wrote on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Susan Heavey and Joseph
Menn; editing by Alistair Bell, Sandra Maler and Amanda Kwan)