Wednesday 13 December 2017

We'll stop spying on friendly foreign leaders, says Obama

Brian O'Conner protests against US President Barack Obama and the NSA before his arrival at the Department of Justice in Washington
Brian O'Conner protests against US President Barack Obama and the NSA before his arrival at the Department of Justice in Washington

Rupert Cornwell

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

In a long-awaited 45-minute speech, Mr Obama sought to strike a balance between the right of privacy and the need to protect the country.

He repeatedly defended the National Security Agency and the FBI, stressing the US could not prevent terrorist attacks without the ability to penetrate digital communications.

He said the US "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 same thing themselves.

But the president admitted that "in the rush to respond" after 9/11, 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, not less -- and, Mr Obama declared, changes were now needed.

Among the most important of them was to set up a panel of privacy advocates to handle intelligence cases, and the announcement 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.

This information will no longer be held directly by the government, but where it is be kept is unclear, given that the phone firm themselves are not keen to do so. And in any case, experts pointed out, one way or another this data will continue to be collected.

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 a C for content".

One thing however was clear -- that Mr Snowden can expect no early clemency. Mr Obama noted drily that he would not "dwell on Mr Snowden's actions or motivations", but warned that if intelligence officials were allowed to make public what they knew, "we will not be able to keep our people safe". (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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