President Barack Obama has laid out a series of reforms to US spying programs. In addition to changing parts of its bulk data collection practices, Washington will no longer spy on some foreign leaders.
Obama said on Friday that while the US will not end its bulk collection of telephone and Internet data, it will no longer consolidate and control all of that information.
Washington has been heavily criticized both in the US and abroad for its far-reaching surveillance programs, particularly its indiscriminate collection of millions of people's telephone records, known as metadata. A White House panel appointed by the president to review spying practices questioned the government's ability to control such information. Acknowledging that criticism, Obama conceded that "we need a new approach"
"I'm therefore ordering a transition that will end the [metadata collection program] as it exists and establish a new program where government doesn't hold bulk metadata," said Obama, speaking at the Justice Department in Washington.
The president said the metadata would not be able to be queried unless there were a true emergency. He also said private communications companies will be able to provide customers more information about government requests for data.
Curbing foreign leader surveillance
A particular point of criticism from abroad since the revelations over US surveillance became public was spying on foreign citizens and leaders. In Germany, the collection of citizens' phone and Internet data, as well as the monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel's phone, sparked widespread uproar.
In response, Obama announced that the US would no longer monitor the communications of "heads of state of governments with whom we work closely."
"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance," he added.
The president also said the US would take "the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people for people overseas."
"The bottom line is that people around the world - regardless of their nationality - should know that the United States is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account," Obama said.
Welcomes debate, not Snowden
Obama said that the ongoing debate over US spying "will make us stronger," but nonetheless hit out at the man responsible for sparking the discussion, former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. The president said the "sensational" leaks could damage US operations for years to come. Snowden is currently living in temporary asylum in Russia and is wanted by the US on espionage charges.
The president acknowledged that US intelligence agencies' technological capabilities presented the opportunity for abuse, but said no such pattern existed and more safeguards will be implemented.
"The reforms I'm proposing today should give the American people greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as our intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe," Obama said.
Reforms welcomed by German leaders
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reacted positively to Obama's speech, saying he was "confident" the US "will summon the strength to adjust the balance between legitimate security needs and the rights of citizens."
"We greet this move, also because it lays the basis for an even broader public discussion in the US that had already begun," he added.
Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told the Reuters news agency that the German government would "closely analyze the announcements made by the US president."
"The German government fundamentally welcomes that data protection and rights of non-US citizens will be respected more closely in the future," he said. "In light of today's speech, we'll continue the talks about finding a new basis for the cooperation of our intelligence agencies."
dr/mkg (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)