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
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
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
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
News
i100
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage: 'I don't know anybody in politics as poor as we are'
i100
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
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

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015