Obama, in a major policy speech, announced a series of measures to balance between civil liberties of Americans and people across the globe and meeting the US security and intelligence needs. (Agencies)
"Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have made clear to the intelligence community that, unless there is a compelling national security purpose, we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies,” Obama said.
"Let me be clear: our intelligence agencies will continue to gather information about the intentions of governments, as opposed to ordinary citizens, around the world, in the same way that the intelligence services of every other nation does," he said in his speech wherein he gave details of a month-long review of his government's internet and phone surveillance programmes.
"We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective. But heads of state and government with whom we work closely, and on whose cooperation we depend, should feel confident that we are treating them as real partners. The changes I've ordered do just that," Obama said.
Revelation of such a secretive programme, as leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, had resulted in outrage in some of the key American allies, including France, Germany, Brazil and India. The Brazilian leader cancelled her state visit to the US in protest. Obama said Snowden's "sensational" revelations could impact US operations for years to come.
"The sensational way in which these disclosures have come out has often shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries that could impact our operations in ways that we may not fully understand for years to come. I've instructed my national security team, as well as the intelligence community, to work with foreign counterparts to deepen our coordination and cooperation in ways that rebuild trust going forward," he said.
Obama said the State Department will designate a senior officer to implement the new privacy safeguards. "We will appoint a senior official at the White House to implement the new privacy safeguards that I have announced today. I will devote the resources to centralize and improve the process we use to handle foreign requests for legal assistance, keeping our high standards for privacy while helping foreign partners fight crime and terrorism," he said.
Obama said he is ordering a transition that will end the Section 215 bulk metadata programme as it currently exists, and establish a mechanism that preserves the capabilities we need without the government holding this bulk metadata.
He said he has asked his counsellor John Podesta to lead a comprehensive review of big data and privacy. Asserting that the US will have to lead in this time of change, Obama said it may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard, and the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by the government can be frustrating.
"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programmes, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account. But let us remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront in defending personal privacy and human dignity," he said.
Obama said he has instructed the intelligence community and Attorney General to use this transition period to develop options for a new approach that can match the capabilities and fill the gaps that the Section 215 programme was designed to address without the government holding this meta-data.
"They will report back to me with options for alternative approaches before the programme comes up for reauthorization on March 28. During this period, I will consult with the relevant committees in Congress to seek their views, and then seek congressional authorization for the new programme as needed," he said.
Obama said the reforms he is proposing should give the Americans greater confidence that their rights are being protected, even as the intelligence and law enforcement agencies maintain the tools they need to keep us safe. Obama said the leaders of close friends and allies deserve to know that if he wants to learn what they think about an issue, he will pick up the phone and call them, rather than turning to surveillance.
"In other words, just as we balance security and privacy at home, our global leadership demands that we balance our security requirements against our need to maintain trust and cooperation among people and leaders around the world," he said.
"For that reason, the new presidential directive that I have issued today will clearly prescribe what we do, and do not do, when it comes to our overseas surveillance. To begin with, the directive makes clear that the United States only uses signals intelligence for legitimate national security purposes, and not for the purpose of indiscriminately reviewing the emails or phone calls of ordinary people," he said.
"I have also made it clear that the United States does not collect intelligence to suppress criticism or dissent, nor do we collect intelligence to disadvantage people on the basis of their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. And we do not collect intelligence to provide a competitive advantage to US companies, or US commercial sectors," he said.
In terms of bulk collection of signals intelligence, US intelligence agencies will only use such data to meet specific security requirements: counter-intelligence, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber-security, force protection for troops and allies, and combating transnational crime, including sanctions evasion.
"Moreover, I have directed that we take the unprecedented step of extending certain protections that we have for the American people to people overseas. I have directed the DNI, in consultation with the Attorney General, to develop these safeguards, which will limit the duration that we can hold personal information, while also restricting the use of this information," he said.
Obama said "the bottom line is that people around the world, regardless of their nationality, should know that the US is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security, and that we take their privacy concerns into account. This applies to foreign leaders as well".
Obama, in a major policy speech, announced a series of measures to balance between civil liberties of Americans and people across the globe and meeting the US security and intelligence needs.