Obama nears end of NSA spying review

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House said Thursday that President Barack Obama was nearing the end of his soul searching about US spying reforms as he met lawmakers who oversee the intelligence community.

Obama met the delegation at the White House as part of a string of consultations with players on all sides of the debate on how best to balance US security and privacy rights, following revelations of massive spy agency snooping by fugitive contractor Edward Snowden.

"This meeting was an opportunity for the President to hear from the members about the work they have been doing on these issues since they last met and solicit their input as we near the end of our internal review," said a White House statement.

The meeting included several prominent critics of National Security Agency (NSA) phone and data sweeps which Obama says have undermined public confidence in the work of the US intelligence community and must provoke reforms.

Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, who was one of the lawmakers in the meeting, called on the president to explain why such vast data mining programs - which spy chiefs say help piece together links between terror suspects worldwide - were necessary.

"If the President believes we need a bulk collection program of telephone data, then he needs to break his silence and clearly explain to the American people why it is needed for our national security," Goodlatte said.

"The President has unique information about the merits of these programs and the extent of their usefulness." Senior US officials have indicated that Obama is considering whether to permit the programs to continue but to require data to be held either by technology companies or a third party. Intelligence officers would have to obtain court permission to access the phone records.

That issue is likely to come up in the president's scheduled meeting on Friday with representatives of technology companies.

Sources also say that Obama is considering reining in spying on the telephone and email communications of foreign leaders, after Snowden's revelations of such activity - including on the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel - provoked outrage abroad.

On Wednesday, Obama met the heads of the NSA, CIA, FBI and the director of national intelligence to discuss proposed changes to the programs.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president was "close to the end of this review" as he prepares a major speech to Americans on proposed reforms before January 28.

Obama took a long report with more than 40 recommendations for reform prepared by a review board he commissioned, to study on his recent end-of-year vacation in Hawaii.