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Obama Orders Revamp of US Surveillance Standards

RIA Novosti

23:35 17/01/2014

WASHINGTON, January 17 (RIA Novosti) – US President Barack Obama on Friday ordered a halt to government control of troves of phone data collected by US intelligence services, a move that comes amid the uproar over disclosures by fugitive leaker Edward Snowden about secret US surveillance programs.

In a much anticipated speech, Obama also called for the creation of a new system allowing intelligence agencies to access such data to prevent terrorist attacks and other threats to national security while protecting the privacy of citizens at home and abroad.

"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," Obama said.

Effective immediately, intelligence agencies must obtain permission from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in order to access the massive database containing records of phone calls by hundreds of millions of US citizens, Obama said.

Noting the "potential for abuse" resulting from mass government storage of data on private phone communications, Obama said the data would be placed under the control of a third party, but that "more work needs to be done to determine exactly how this system might work."

Snowden released a cache of classified documents to journalists last summer that described US government electronic surveillance programs, including eavesdropping on American citizens.

The revelations have sparked domestic controversy and strained relations between the US and its allies, including Germany after it was revealed the National Security Agency had bugged Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone for several years.

In a direct response to that controversy, Obama on Friday ordered US intelligence agencies to stop spying on the leaders of allied countries.

"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to know what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance," Obama said.

Snowden's shadow hung over much of Obama's speech Friday, though he mentioned him by name only twice.

The US president said he would not "dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or his motivations," but that "if any individual who objects to government policy can take it into their own hands to publicly disclose classified information, then we will not be able to keep our people safe, or conduct foreign policy."

Obama also defended US surveillance practices, noting that the United States will "continue to gather information about the intentions of governments – as opposed to ordinary citizens – around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does."

"We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective," he said.

Obama also took a swipe at China and Russia, countries whose rights records have faced criticism from the US government and other Western nations, by contrasting his administration's public discussion of spying practices with theirs.

"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account," he said.

Obama's reference to Russia in the speech, however, appeared softer than in the prepared version of his remarks distributed to the media shortly before he took the podium.

The prepared speech did not include the phrase "in other places" in reference to Russia, suggesting that the Russian government is indifferent to the privacy concerns of its own citizens.

Snowden fled to Moscow in June after a stopover in Hong Kong and remained in Sheremetyevo Airport for more than a month before the Russian government granted him temporary asylum.

Russia has repeated denied US requests to expel Snowden to the United States, where he faces charges of espionage and theft of government property.

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