U.S. President Barack Obama says he is curtailing the country's vast surveillance operation, reining in spying by the clandestine National Security Agency.
The president outlined a series of changes Friday, including virtually ending spying on foreign allies and initiating judicial oversight of the government's collection of records of millions of telephone calls Americans make. He said the government would continue to collect the phone data but would move to relinquish control of it by the end of March to a yet-to-be-determined entity after consulting with Congress.
Mr. Obama announced the changes in the country's intelligence gathering in a long-awaited speech prompted by the massive leak of NSA documents over the last several months by former national security contractor Edward Snowden. The NSA says he stole 1.7 million documents before fleeing to asylum in Russia.
Some of documents showed that the U.S. has listened in on calls by foreign allies, including the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But Mr. Obama said that would end, unless there is a "compelling" concern about U.S. national security.
"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 also said he has directed U.S. intelligence and legal officials to develop some of the same surveillance safeguards for foreign nationals that are afforded U.S. citizens.
In a 43-minute speech, Mr. Obama sought to craft a careful balance between the needs of the country to collect information to thwart future terrorist attacks like the 2001 assault on New York and Washington that killed nearly 3,000 people and concerns that the surveillance is violating the civil liberties and privacy of Americans.
He said the country has "real enemies and threats, and that intelligence serves a vital role in confronting them."
But he said privacy concerns dictated changes in the phone data collection program. He ordered limits on the extent of the searches of the phone data and said the information can only be looked at after a judicial review or a "true emergency."
He said the changes should give Americans more confidence that their privacy is being protected even as authorities seek to protect the country.
"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."
Mr. Obama said that because of the country's continuing criminal investigation of Snowden, he would not "dwell on Mr. Snowden's actions or motivations."
The U.S. has been unsuccessful in seeking Snowden's extradition to stand trial on espionage charges. He took the documents while working at an NSA outpost on the Pacific island state of Hawaii.