10 Aug 2013

Obama pledges limits on electronic spying programmes

8:17 am on 10 August 2013

US President Barack Obama has announced plans to limit sweeping US government surveillance programmes saying the United States "can and must be more transparent."

At a White House news conference, the president unveiled proposals to amend a provision in the Patriot Act that governs the collection of telephone data.

Mr Obama says that, given the history of abuse by governments, it is right to ask questions about surveillance, particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of people's lives.

He has been defending the surveillance programmes since they were leaked to the media in June by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden. The Obama administration is seeking to return the ex-National Security Agency contractor from Russia, where he has been granted asylum, to face espionage charges.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Mr Obama said at the news conference on Friday.

Mr Obama said he plans to overhaul Section 215 of the anti-terrorism Patriot Act that governs the collection of so-called "metadata" such as phone records, insisting that the government had no interest in spying on ordinary Americans.

The president will also pursue with Congress a reform of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which considers requests from law enforcement authorities to target an individual for intelligence gathering.

Mr Obama said he wants to let a civil liberties representative weigh in on the court's deliberations to ensure an adversarial voice is heard.

The secretive court, authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, has been criticized for essentially rubber stamping the US government's requests to search through Americans' electronic records, Reuters reports.

Currently, the court makes its decisions on government surveillance requests without hearing from anyone but US Justice Department lawyers in its behind-closed-doors proceedings.

Senior administration officials said earlier that Mr Obama would call on Congress to work with him to rein in the National Security Agency's collection of internet and phone data. It is not clear whether Congress will take up the initiatives. A number of influential lawmakers have vigorously defended the spying programmes as critical tools needed to detect terrorist threats.