Barack Obama sets limits, overhauls surveillance programme

2014-01-18 09:24

Washington – US President Barack Obama called for the end of his government’s control over masses of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, and promised in a major and long-expected speech that US intelligence would no longer be listening in on the telephone conversations of leaders of nations that are US friends and allies.

The existence of the US intelligence programme that bugged the phones of leaders like Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, for example, significantly cooled relations with some of Washington’s key partners abroad.

Merkel made her displeasure broadly known, and Rousseff blasted the US at the UN. She cancelled a planned trip to the US that was supposed to culminate in a coveted state dinner at the White House on October 23 last year.

“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 yesterday.

But in a telephone briefing with reporters before the president’s speech, a senior administration official said he could not detail which leaders.

“We frankly can’t be in the business of going individual by individual to determine every foreign leader that we may or may not be collecting intelligence on,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, to offer greater detail about the overhaul.

“So this is not just the case where Angela Merkel is not being subject to surveillance. We’ve determined that we will not pursue this type of surveillance on the order of dozens of leaders,” the official said.

The revelations of the vast collection of phone and internet data both at home and abroad laid a broad stain on the US which prides itself as a protector of human rights and policies that guarantee individual privacy.

In addition to promising greater privacy protections at home and among friendly leaders, Obama called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the US.

“The bottom line is that people around the world – regardless of their nationality – should know that the US 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.

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

In Obama’s highly anticipated speech, after months of revelations about US spying by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, he said intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the programme to invade privacy. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant Snowden amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the US, but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.

The European Commission said it welcomed Obama’s plans but said “trust in EU-US data flows has been affected by revelations on these intelligence programmes and needs to be rebuilt. In recognising the need for action, President Obama has taken important steps towards rebuilding that trust”.

Senior German lawmaker Phillipp Missfelder, a member of Merkel’s party, said: “Obama’s speech is an important contribution toward restoring the trust we’ve lost in our close friend and ally in the past months.”

In Brazil, lawmaker Vanessa Grazziotin, whose Senate panel is investigating US espionage, said: “Besides the words of the American president, the entire world wants concrete actions of respect for the sovereignty of nations.”

Key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain.

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.

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