WHITE HOUSE— President Barack Obama unveiled reforms Friday in the vast surveillance being conducted by the country's clandestine National Security Agency.
Aiming to calm uproar over NSA telecommunications surveillance, Obama outlined plans to end government control of an enormous cache of bulk phone records about calls made by Americans and foreigners, and also announced steps to reassure foreign leaders about U.S. surveillance tactics.
In the highly anticipated Justice Department speech, which follows months of review by a special panel in the wake of damaging disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the president also said government access and search of any data held by telecommunications companies will require advance approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA).
The special panel issued 46 recommendations to the administration, covering everything from NSA's collection of so-called "metadata" from communications links worldwide, to direct surveillance of foreign leaders — an issue that caused major rifts between the U.S. and key allies.
While Obama said there has been no intentional abuse of surveillance programs and no spying on ordinary Americans through bulk phone data collection, he also said the NSA's ability to gather intelligence must be preserved. He acknowledged, though, that proper safeguards must be in place to prevent unwarranted intrusions.
Obama said he would not dwell on the actions of Snowden, whom he mentioned by name, or his motivation for making public a huge trove of classified information. The challenge ahead, he said, includes regaining the trust of people around the world, and of American citizens.
"The task before us now is greater than simply repairing the damage done to our operations, or preventing more disclosures from taking place in the future," he said. "Instead, we have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals — and our Constitution — require."
In order to modify existing policies, the president has ordered the attorney general and the NSA to submit within 60 days a report on alternative methods of holding phone data before Congress must reauthorize Section 215 of U.S. law under which collection occurs.
The presidential directive orders safeguards to be developed regarding how long the U.S. can hold information about non-citizens overseas, and how it can be used — as the president put it — to advance U.S. counterintelligence, counterterrorism and cybersecurity.
Effective immediately, the National Security Agency will be required to get FISA permission before accessing phone records collected from hundreds of millions of Americans, except in emergency situations.
Senior administration officials say the attorney general will work with the surveillance court to ensure that no request to access specific phone records can be made without advance judicial review.
He also proposed changes in the use of National Security Letters, which allow the government to seek information from persons or companies pertaining to national security. He also endorsed creation of a panel of outside advocates to represent privacy and civil liberty concerns before FISA, a move that would require congressional action.
Obama also said he would appoint new State Department and administration officials to oversee implementation of the new policies and maintain dialogue and outreach to both domestic and international communities impacted by the changes.
Obama said his reforms will point the U.S. in a new direction and will require more work, but "will make us stronger."
Senior administration officials also said intelligence activities aimed at heads of state and government have been reviewed, and bilateral conversations have already been initiated to build better cooperation and coordination on all sides.
Obama said U.S. leadership can only be sustained with the trust and confidence of world leaders. He pledged to the world that unless there is a compelling national security purpose, the U.S. will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government, or of close friends and allies.
"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," he said. "This applies to foreign leaders as well."
Obama said the U.S. will not apologize for methods it has used and will continue gathering intelligence. The world expects the United States to defend individuals' freedom, he said, adding that U.S. intelligence collection is aimed at protecting American and allied forces combating weapons proliferation and transnational crime.
The president also announced initiation of a White House review of policies on so-called "big data," taking into account the pace of technological change that has revolutionized communications worldwide.
The same technological advances that allow U.S. intelligence agencies to pinpoint an al-Qaida cell in Yemen, he said, also put routine communications around the world within the reach of government investigators. He admitted how disquieting that prospect can be for everyone as the digital revolution transforms the world.
While intelligence agencies cannot function without keeping details of their work secret, he said continuing attacks and cyber-attacks make it necessary for the intelligence community to be able to "connect the dots" as a central defender of the nation.
Obama also said the United States' intelligence gathering throughout its two-century existence "has helped secure our country and freedom." The 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil posed new challenges for the country, he said, which required intelligence agencies to adapt beyond the type of spying they had conducted for decades.
US opinion polls
Polls in recent months have shown a majority of Americans believe existing laws are inadequate when it comes to oversight of NSA methods.
Globally, Obama's remarks are being carefully assessed because of the controversy over NSA eavesdropping on phone calls of key leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Though the reforms announced Friday are based on findings of the review panel and Obama's intense consultations, he has yet to receive another report from a special civil liberties board.
Experts say the changes are certain to draw criticism from some in the intelligence community, who urged the president to maintain surveillance programs in their current form.
Washington reporter Ken Bredemeier and Pete Cobus contributed to this report.