Obama to unveil changes to US spying in response to Snowden leaks

US president expected to curb surveillance on foreigners and collection of bulk phone data

President Barack Obama before a cabinet meeting with his advisors at the White House in Washington. Tomorrow he will issue new guidelines  to curtail government surveillance. Photograph:  Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

President Barack Obama before a cabinet meeting with his advisors at the White House in Washington. Tomorrow he will issue new guidelines to curtail government surveillance. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Thu, Jan 16, 2014, 01:00

President Barack Obama will tomorrow unveil guidelines restricting the collection of bulk telephone data and impose greater privacy safeguards for foreigners in response to the political repercussions from the secret US spying operations revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

He will not propose the most extensive changes to the operations recommended by an advisory panel he appointed to examine them but he will announce plans to curtail spying on foreigners to soothe relations with world leaders angered by America’s intrusive spying overseas.

The New York Times reported some details of Mr Obama’s plans, including the appointment of officials to represent the public in secret intelligence meetings, alongside fresh revelations about the NSA’s use of secret technology to spy on almost 100,000 computers around the world not connected to the internet.

The NSA has since 2008 used computer networks, radio waves and tiny circuit boards or USB cards inserted into computers to target Chinese and Russian military, Mexican drug gangs and allies including Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, the Times reported, citing documents leaked by Mr Snowden.

An NSA spokeswoman quoted by the newspaper said only foreign targets were spied on “in response to intelligence requirements” and that the programme, codenamed Quantum, was not used to steal trade secrets of foreign businesses on behalf of US firms.

In a speech at the Department of Justice in Washington DC, Mr Obama will address concerns about the scope of the NSA’s spying. He will attempt to strike a balance between calming foreign leaders with some changes to US surveillance and pacifying domestic fears over privacy breaches while leaving the bulk of the vast spying dragnet intact.

Mr Obama would outline how the US could use intelligence programmes in a way that “optimally protects our national security while supporting our foreign policy, respecting privacy and civil liberties, maintaining the public trust and reducing the risk of unauthorised disclosures,” the White House said.


Passing the buck
The president is expected to defer one of the more contentious issues of the surveillance programmes to Congress by asking US lawmakers to decide whether the storage of bulk communications data should be taken out of government hands, as recommended by his review panel.

To address concerns that state eavesdropping powers violate civil liberties, he plans to increase transparency and privacy protections by appointing a public advocate on the secret court that oversees national security decisions and grants the spying agency such wide-ranging powers.

The changes represent the president’s most significant response to the disclosures about the NSA’s operations leaked by Mr Snowden, who as a contractor for the agency in Hawaii collected more than one million documents about the US government’s secret spying programmes.