NSA surveillance revelations: Barack Obama announces reforms to bulk data collection and spying on heads of states

Long-awaited speech unveiled some restrictions to America's surveillance policy, but Obama remained largely unapologetic

Seven months after the first bombshell revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden, President Barack Obama announced new curbs on electronic surveillance by the US intelligence agencies, including an end to the mass storage of phone data, and to eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders.

In a long-awaited 45-minute speech, Mr Obama sought to strike an elusive balance between the right of privacy and the need to protect the country. He repeatedly defended the work of the National Security Agency and the FBI, stressing that the US could not prevent terrorist or cyber attacks without the ability to penetrate digital communications.

There had been no evidence of abuse and, he said, “we cannot unilaterally disarm” in a dangerous world where some of the countries that professed the loudest outrage at Mr Snowden’s disclosures were doing the very same thing themselves. Nor would the US apologise for the fact it might be better than others at electronic espionage.

But the President admitted that “in the rush to respond” after the September 2001 attacks, the risk of government over-reach “became more pronounced” as new authorities were set up without public debate, and technological advance outstripped the ability to police it. This created “an inevitable bias” to collect more information about the world, not less – and, Obama declared, changes were now needed.

Among the most important of them, he urged Congress to set up a panel of privacy advocates for the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court that handles intelligence cases, and announced that spying against friendly foreign leaders – as most controversially the case with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – would stop. But he warned that if national security warranted, the US reserved the right to listen in to anyone, anywhere.

The biggest change however will be in the handling of bulk telephone “metadata” stored by the NSA, the programme that has most outraged civil liberties groups in the US. Henceforth this information will no longer be held directly by the government. But where it will be kept is unclear, given that the phone companies themselves are not keen to keep it. And in any case, experts pointed out, one way or another this data will continue to be collected.

Initial reaction to the speech was mixed. Mr Obama said his reforms should give Americans greater confidence their privacy was not being abused. But Rand Paul, the Republican senator who has been among the NSA’s fiercest critics, said that Mr Obama deserved “an A for effort, but only a C for content.”

One thing however was clear – that Mr Snowden, currently a fugitive in Russia, can expect no early clemency. In his sole mention of the former intelligence contractor, Mr Obama noted drily that he would not “dwell on Mr Snowden’s actions or motivations,” but warned that if intelligence officials could take it into their own hands to make public what they knew, “we will not be able to keep our people safe.”

Read more: Obama's NSA speech - the reaction on Twitter
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Developer

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Back End Web Developer

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenance Engineer

£36500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Electrical Maintenan...

The Jenrick Group: Multi Skilled Maintenance Engineer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Multi Skill...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'