Obama commits to reforms to limit US surveillance

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Obama commits to reforms to limit US surveillance

Assange calls it a 'victory of sorts' for Snowden.

President Barack Obama announced plans on Friday to limit sweeping US government surveillance programmes that have come under criticism since leaks by a former spy agency contractor, saying the United States "can and must be more transparent."

"Given the history of abuse by governments, it's right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives," Obama told a news conference at the White House.

Saying that it was important to strike the right balance between security and civil liberties, Obama vowed to improve oversight of surveillance and restore public trust in the government's programs.

"It's not enough for me as president to have confidence in these programs. The American people need to have confidence in them, as well," Obama said, adding that he was confident the programs were not being abused.

Obama's announcement - made just before Obama heads for summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard - may be greeted as a partial victory for supporters of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden who is now in Russia, where he was granted asylum last week.

The Obama administration has vigorously pursued Snowden to bring him back to the United States to face espionage charges for leaking details of the surveillance programs to the media.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said at the news conference, brushing off the suggestion that Friday's announcement showed Snowden had done the right thing in revealing the extent of the government's program.

The president said he had ordered a review of the surveillance programs before Snowden provided secret documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post, but he added that there was no doubt those leaks triggered a "much more rapid, passionate response" to the issue.

Four steps

Obama said he had decided on four specific measures.

Firstly, he said, he plans to work with Congress to pursue "appropriate reforms" of Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of so-called "metadata" such as phone records. He insisted that the government had no interest in spying on ordinary Americans.

Obama did not specifically lay out how the program will be reined in, however. Instead, he pledged greater oversight, greater transparency, and constraints.

Civil liberties advocates wanted more details.

"He said he would recommend 215 reform, but he said 'appropriate' reform and we don't know what that means," said Electronic Frontier Foundation digital rights analyst Trevor Timm. "There were no concrete changes to the actual surveillance programs."

Outlining his second measure, Obama said he would pursue with Congress a reform of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities to target an individual for intelligence gathering.

Obama said he wants to let a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court's deliberations to ensure an adversarial voice is heard. The court, authorised under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, has been criticised for essentially rubber stamping the US government's requests to search through Americans' electronic records.

Currently, the FISA court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but US Justice Department lawyers in its closed-doors proceedings.

Appointing a civil liberties advocate to argue before the surveillance court may have little value, said Carrie Cordero, director of national security studies at Georgetown University Law Center and a former Justice Department lawyer.

"I will be interested to hear how this would work in practice, but as an initial reaction, I do have concerns about additional layers of bureaucracy slowing down the speed and agility of conducting counterterrorism activities," Cordero said in an email.

Thirdly, Obama said he wants to provide more details about the NSA programs to try to restore any public trust damaged by the Snowden disclosures.

The fourth measure was the creation of a high-level group of outside experts to review the US surveillance effort.

Gigi Sohn, head of public interest group Public Knowledge, said Obama's plans were a good start, but added: "It's going to depend a lot on Congress."

The American Civil Liberties Union called the proposals "a necessary and welcome first step."

Executive Director Anthony Romero said the ACLU favors revamping all US surveillance programs to adhere to constitutional protections.

Privacy vs national security

The NSA declined to comment on Obama's proposals. It is not clear if Congress will take up the initiatives. A number of influential lawmakers have vigorously defended the spying programs as critical tools needed to detect terrorist threats.

US Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that her panel will hold a series of hearings to study the surveillance programs.

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, said Republicans expect the White House to ensure that reforms do not compromise programs that protect against terrorism.

Republican Representative Peter King issued a statement stridently defending the surveillance programs and calling Obama's reform plan "a monumental failure in presidential wartime leadership and responsibility."

The Patriot Act, launched by then-President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001, attacks, was initiated as a terrorism-fighting tool to prevent a similar attack from happening again.

But frequent questions have been raised about the scope of the law and whether its sweeping tactics allows unwarranted intelligence gathering on innocent Americans.

The Snowden disclosures generated concerns about whether people were being forced to sacrifice their constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the open-ended search for terrorism links.

The NSA has long monitored communications abroad but the documents released by Snowden indicated the email and phone data of Americans is being routinely monitored on a vast scale, with the cooperation of major US technology firms.

Obama met with the CEOs of technology and telecoms companies such Apple Inc and AT&T Inc on Thursday to discuss government surveillance. A Google Inc computer scientist and transparency advocates also participated.

The search for Snowden has upset US relations with some Latin American countries, China and, above all, Russia. Obama this week canceled a planned summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin.

Obama said the United States has always had tension with Russia and it was an appropriate juncture to reassess where the two nations stand.

Assange calls move a 'victory of sorts' for Snowden

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has called President Barack Obama's announcement a victory of sorts for fugitive former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.  

"Today, the President of the United States validated Edward Snowden's role as a whistleblower by announcing plans to reform America's global surveillance program," Assange said in a statement referring to Obama's announcement on Friday.

"Today was a victory of sorts for Edward Snowden and his many supporters," Assange said in the statement, which was posted on the WikiLeaks website on Saturday.

"As Snowden has stated, his biggest concern was if he blew the whistle and change did not occur. Well reforms are taking shape, and for that, the President and people of the United States and around the world owe Edward Snowden a debt of gratitude."

Assange, who has been holed up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than a year, fearing extradition to the United States for publishing classified US documents, rejected Obama's assertion that his reforms were planned before Snowden's disclosures about US surveillance activities.

"The simple fact is that without Snowden's disclosures, no one would know about the programs and no reforms could take place," he said.

Assange accused the US government of "stunning" hypocrisy in its treatment of Snowden while it gave asylum to thousands of dissidents, whistleblowers and political refugees from countries like Russia and Venezuela.

The Obama administration has vigorously pursued Snowden to bring him back to the United States to face espionage charges for leaking details of U.S. surveillance programs to the media. Snowden is now in Russia, where he has been granted asylum.

Assange himself is wanted in Sweden on sexual abuse allegations he denies. He has sought sanctuary in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London because he fears he could be extradited to the United States to face potential charges over the release of thousands of confidential US documents on WikiLeaks.

Assange charged that the Obama administration had prosecuted "twice as many" whistleblowers as all other US administrations combined, in spite of the president's 2008 campaign pledge to champion transparency and those who fought for it.

He said it was fortunate for the world that Snowden and others "of good conscience," like Private First Class Bradley Manning - who was convicted last month of leaking classified data to WikiLeaks - had chosen not to remain silent.

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