Obama pledges greater transparency

2013-08-09 22:36
US President Barack Obama (AP)

US President Barack Obama (AP)

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Washington - President Barack Obama announced plans on Friday to limit sweeping US government surveillance programmes that have come under criticism since leaks by a former spy agency contractor, saying the United States "can and must be more transparent".

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama told a news conference at the White House.

Saying that it was important to strike the right balance between security and civil rights, Obama said he was unveiling specific steps to improve oversight of surveillance and restore public trust in the government's programmes.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programmes. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well," Obama said.

The announcement - made just before Obama heads for summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard - may be greeted as at least a partial victory for supporters of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden who is now in Russia, where he was granted asylum last week.

Despite the announcement, the Obama administration has vigorously pursued Snowden to bring him back to the United States to face espionage charges for leaking details of the surveillance programmes to the media.

"I don't think Mr Snowden was a patriot," Obama said at the news conference.

Obama said he plans to overhaul Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of so-called "metadata" such as phone records, insisting that the government had no interest in spying on ordinary Americans.

Obama will also pursue with Congress a reform of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities to target an individual for intelligence gathering.

Obama said he wants to let a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court's deliberations to ensure an adversarial voice is heard.

Public trust

The secretive court, authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, has been criticized for essentially rubber stamping the US government's requests to search through Americans' electronic records.

Currently, the FISA court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but US Justice Department lawyers in its behind-closed-doors proceedings.

Obama also said he wants to provide more details about the NSA programmes to try to restore any public trust damaged by the Snowden disclosures.

The administration will also form a high-level group of outside experts to review the US surveillance effort.

The NSA declined to comment on Obama's proposals. It is also not clear if Congress will take up the initiatives. A number of influential lawmakers have vigorously defended the spying programs as critical tools needed to detect terrorist threats.

The Patriot Act, launched by then-President George W Bush after the 11 September 2001, attacks, was initiated as a terrorism-fighting tool to prevent a similar attack from ever happening again.

But frequent questions have been raised about the scope of the law and whether its sweeping tactics allows unwarranted intelligence gathering on innocent Americans.

The Snowden disclosures generated concerns about whether people were being forced to sacrifice their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the open-ended search for terrorism links.

Obama met with the CEOs of technology and telecoms companies such Apple and AT&T on Thursday to discuss government surveillance. A Google computer scientist and transparency advocates also participated in the meeting, according to the White House.

The search for Snowden has upset US relations with some Latin American countries, China and, above all, Russia. Obama this week canceled a planned summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin.

The revelation of the sweeping US electronic spying programmes has also alienated countries such as Germany, which fiercely defends its citizens' privacy rights.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  privacy

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