Obama: NSA to stop spying on leaders of allied nations

Founder of protest group Code Pink Medea Benjamin (L) protests against the National Security Agency and US President Obama before his arrival at Department of Justice in Washington. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Founder of protest group Code Pink Medea Benjamin (L) protests against the National Security Agency and US President Obama before his arrival at Department of Justice in Washington. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

UNITED States President Barack Obama has directed the National Security Agency (NSA) not to listen in on the phone calls of the foreign heads of friendly countries.

Delivering a speech outlining a raft of reforms to the NSA's controversial intelligence collection practices, he said he does not need to rely on spying to find out what allied nations think.

"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know if I want to know what they think about an issue, I'll pick up the phone and call them," he said.

Senior administration officials said the change will mean the end of surveillance on dozens of world leaders, although they did not specify which ones. Officials also did not say if the exclusion will include the high-ranking officials working around the heads of state.

Mr Obama did, however, lay out a specific set of guidelines on when, why and how the NSA conducts surveillance.

For instance, he said the US would not use signal intelligence to suppress dissent or give American companies a competitive advantage. It also will not indiscriminately review communications of people who pose no threat to the US.

The reforms were part of a result of a series of consultations with lawmakers, industry leaders and foreign partners undertaken over the past few months.

The most closely watched change for domestic surveillance in the US was the move to limit the ability of intelligence agents to query the millions of phone call records it collects from US telcos.

While rejecting calls from some quarters to scrap the programme altogether, Mr Obama said that queries to the database will now need to get court approval. He said this was a temporary step as the authorities eventually move to get those records transferred out of government hands.

He stressed that there had been no evidence that the intelligence community had broken the law or sought breach civil liberties, but acknowledged the potential for government overreach.

The reforms come some six months after Edward Snowden leaked damaging information about the NSA programme. The leaks resulted in outrage in the US as well as from countries like Germany and Brazil where leaders learnt they had their phones tapped.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg