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Obama offers changes to NSA surveillance, defending program

U.S. President Barack Obama offered a series of changes to the National Security Agency (NSA)' s controversial surveillance practices on Friday, seven months after leaks by formal defense contractor Edward Snowden sparked controversy and furor around the world.

In a highly anticipated and carefully worded speech at the Justice Department, Obama outlined his plan to pull back part of the NSA's surveillance programs while defending the role of secret surveillance in the post 9/11 era.

Domestic Changes Needed But "Not Simple"

At the heart of the changes to domestic surveillance is Obama's proposal to alter the bulk collection of U.S. citizens' phone records, known as Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.

"I am therefore ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata program as it currently exists, and holding this bulk metadata," said the president.

However, he did not echo a key recommendation made by an outside advisory group he appointed surrounding domestic phone surveillance program.

According to the report released last month by the White House, the panel brought up 46 recommendations to reform the NSA surveillance. Among them was a suggestion that the government's current bulk storage of telephone metadata should be held by either private providers or a private third party.

"This will not be simple," Obama said in his address, adding that both options will pose "difficult problems."

He directed Attorney General Eric Holder and the intelligence community to develop options for a new approach of the program without the government holding the metadata and report back to him before March 28.

To respond to the privacy woes at home, Obama also asked Congress to approve the establishment of a panel of advocates who can represent privacy interest before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the special court that reviews and greenlights the surveillance practices.

As the proposal of the new panel, part of the president's proposed reforms will require authorization by Congress. It is not clear what measures will finally be taken into effect in the coming months.

Allies Reassured, Confusion Lingers

Obama's announcement of new proposals to reform the surveillance programs is also aimed at foreign audience. Media exposures last year showed that U.S. intelligence agencies have been spying on foreign countries, including the public and leaders of America's European allies. The revelation further stirred up anger and criticism against U.S. surveillance around the world.

In his address, Obama pledged some new restrictions on spying leaders of close allies and some privacy protections for foreign public.

"Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, 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 said.

Leaders of the U.S. allies, as he put, should feel confident that "we are treating them as real partners."

He also vowed that U.S. will only use those intelligence for " legitimate national security purposes," and not for "the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people."

However, Obama put it straight that U.S. intelligence agencies will continue gathering information about intentions of foreign governments.

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

As the president tried to rebuild trust around the world, it remains unclear whether his general and vague answer could effectively address the concerns of the public around the world that they could be swept up in U.S. surveillance.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow and director of Brookings Institution's Intelligence Project, noted that Obama did not make clear who will qualify as "a close ally," which could bring up more confusion.

Surveillance Vital, Questions Remain

The president's announcement is aimed to calm the furor and controversy at home and abroad following leaks by Snowden since last June. But he appeared to dedicate the major part of his remarks to reassuring the public -- primarily those in the U.S. -- about the surveillance and applauding the U.S. intelligence establishment.

"What I did not do is stop these programs wholesale -- not only because I felt that they made us more secure, but also because nothing in the initial review, and nothing that I have learned since, indicated that our intelligence community has sought to violate the law or is cavalier about the civil liberties of their fellow citizens," he said.

Benjamin Witts, a senior fellow with Brookings Institution, said the president's speech seemed to be "surprisingly strong endorsement" of the intelligence surveillance itself.

Obama made it clear again that the NSA's surveillance programs remain critical tools for U.S. intelligence agencies to prevent and combat terrorism, and serve the vital national security interests.

The president's emphasis is much more on strengthening transparency and oversight over U.S. intelligence surveillance rather than fundamentally changing the surveillance practices, Riedel noted.

What's more, Riedel pointed out, Obama said multiple attacks had been thwarted due to the intelligence surveillance programs, but he seemed to have failed to provide more details backing up this argument.

[Source: By Xinhua writer Sun Hao, Xinhua, Washington, 17Jan14]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
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