Obama set limits, overhauls surveillance program
By STEVEN R. HURST (AP)
January 18, 2014, 2:56 pm TWN
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 U.S. intelligence would no longer be listening in on the telephone conversations of leaders of nations that are U.S. friends and allies.
The existence of the U.S. intelligence program 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 United States at the United Nations. She canceled a planned trip to the United States that was supposed to culminate in a coveted state dinner at the White House on Oct. 23.
"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 Friday.
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 United States 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 U.S.
"The bottom line is that people around the world - regardless of their nationality - should know that the United States 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 U.S. officials had been anticipating.
In Obama's highly anticipated speech, after months of revelations about U.S. spying by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, he said intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the program to invade privacy. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant Snowden amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S., but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.