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Obama Announces Reforms in NSA Surveillance

Obama proposes new protections for people whose information was collected, announces NSA will stop targeting friendly world leaders.
By Elad Benari, Canada
First Publish: 1/17/2014, 8:29 PM

Obama
Obama
Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday announced reforms in the surveillance programs of the National Security Agency (NSA), which were exposed by Edward Snowden, AFP reported.

In a speech at the Justice Department, Obama also said he had halted NSA spy taps targeting friendly world leaders.

He also proposed new protections for foreigners caught in U.S. data collection programs, which harvest hundreds of millions of pages of data on telephone calls, Internet use and text messages across the globe.

"Given the unique power of the state, it is not enough for leaders to say: trust us, we won't abuse the data we collect," said Obama.

Obama's proposals seemed to represent a search for a compromise between demands of civil liberties advocates -- who see all bulk data collection as unconstitutional -- and resistance from U.S. intelligence community.

At the heart of the changes is a commitment from the president to end the NSA's hoarding of telephone "metadata" detailing the duration and destination of calls but not their content.

"I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs," Obama said, according to AFP.

"I believe we need a new approach. I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk meta-data," he added.

Obama called on Attorney General Eric Holder and the NSA to come up with alternative ways to hold the data within 60 days.

Possible alternatives include keeping data with telecommunications firms that are currently compelled to turn it over to the NSA or to deposit it with a third party.

Obama also said that from now on, NSA agents would have to require court permission before accessing data on a specific target of interest, for instance in an anti-terror investigation.

The NSA will also now only be permitted to access call data from people at two removes from a terror suspect. Previously it could probe three "hops" beyond a suspect call.

At the same time, Obama made clear that the retention of phone data could provide a vital tool for U.S. spies to trace links between terror suspects and must continue.

"Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort," he said.

The president also said that he had already ordered a halt to dozens of phone taps of friendly foreign leaders and heads of state.

"I have made clear to the intelligence community that unless there is a compelling national security purpose we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies," he declared.

Snowden’s leaks  revealed a global surveillance system of unprecedented proportions, and sparked controversy between the U.S. and foreign leaders that had their privacy breached. 

One such diplomatic row was with Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel  accused the U.S. of tapping her mobile phone.

It has also been reported that the NSA recorded millions of phone calls in France, including calls involving individuals with no links to terrorism.

On Thursday it was revealed that the NSA had collected almost 200 million text messages a day from across the globe, using them to extract data including location, contact networks and credit card details.

Even Israel is not immune from surveillance, as recently leaked Snowden documents showed that the U.S. had been monitoring the email traffic of Israeli officials, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Obama's efforts appeared to be an attempt to restore public confidence in secretive U.S. espionage activity and to clip the wings of intelligence agencies, without crushing their power to thwart terror attacks on American soil.

The president, who has demanded Snowden return home to face trial, only mentioned him in passing.

"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, according to AFP.

(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)