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Obama bans spying on leaders of US allies

18 January, 2014

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama banned US eavesdropping on the leaders of close friends and allies on Friday and began reining in the vast collection of Americans' phone data in a series of limited reforms triggered by Edward Snowden's revelations.

In a major speech, Obama took steps to reassure Americans and foreigners alike that the United States will take into account privacy concerns highlighted by former spy contractor Snowden's damaging disclosures about the sweep of monitoring activities of the National Security Agency (NSA).

"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," he said. While the address was designed to fend off concerns that US surveillance has gone too far, Obama's measures fell short of dismantling US electronic spying programs. Even as the White House put the final touches on the reform plan this week, media outlets reported that the NSA gathers nearly 200 million text messages a day from around the world and has put software in almost 100,000 computers allowing it to spy on those devices.

Obama promised that the United States will not eavesdrop on the heads of state or government of close US friends and allies. A senior administration official said that would apply to dozens of leaders.

The step was designed to smooth over frayed relations between, for example, the United States and Germany after reports surfaced last year that the NSA had monitored the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff postponed a state visit to Washington in protest at the NSA spying on her email and cellphone.

"The leaders of our close friends and allies deserve to know that if I want to learn what they think about an issue, I will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance," Obama said.

Still, he said, US intelligence will continue to gather information about the intentions of other governments, and will not apologize simply because US spy services are more effective. Obama is trying to balance public anger at the disclosure of intrusion into Americans' privacy with his commitment to retain policies he considers critical to protecting the United States.In doing so he bucked the advice of some of US intelligence leaders.

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