Obama pledges overhaul on surveillance

WASHINGTON, District of Columbia - President Barack Obama pledged to overhaul US secret surveillance on Friday, promising greater oversight and transparency and insisting he had no interest in snooping on ordinary citizens.

Weeks after former US contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of widespread snooping on private Internet and telephone use, Obama stood firm in denying any abuse but acknowledged that he needed to address growing concerns.

"All these steps are designed to ensure that the American people can trust that our efforts are in line with our interests and our values," Obama told a news conference.

"And to others around the world I want to make clear once again that America is not interested in spying on ordinary people," he said.

Obama said he would ask Congress to reform one of the most controversial sections of the Patriot Act passed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks - Section 215, which gives the government access to telephone and other records of its citizens.

In a newly declassified memo, the Justice Department said the programme recorded data - such as duration and numbers - of phone calls feared to involve "terrorists" but did not record the conversations.

Obama also called for the start of debate in the court that authorizes surveillance, which now only receives requests from the government without hearing any counter-arguments as is customary in virtually all of the US judiciary.

Obama said the administration would make a greater effort at transparency, including by starting a website that describes intelligence activities.

And he said he would appoint a board of outside experts who will look more closely at surveillance programs and issue a report by the end of the year.

Controversy has grown since Snowden, a former US government contractor who fled to Russia, revealed some of the more sweeping aspects of US surveillance on citizens' Internet searches and telephone records.

Obama, who cancelled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in part over Russia's decision to grant asylum to the 30-year-old, insisted that he has always tried to prevent abuse of surveillance programs.

"I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot," Obama said.

But Obama said of the Patriot Act: "Given the scale of this programme, I understand the concerns of those who would worry that it could be subject to abuse."

On July 25 the House of Representatives rejected a bid to cut funding for some National Security Agency programs by a surprisingly narrow 205-217 vote, with an unlikely coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal members of Obama's Democratic Party voicing concern about citizens' privacy.

Representative Justin Amash, a libertarian Republican, said he hoped Obama was "serious" about reforms and vowed that dozens of lawmakers would press ahead.

But he wrote on Twitter that Obama's "claim that he was planning to reform these surveillance programs prior to the leaks is laughable."

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican whose support will be critical to any reforms, criticised Obama.

"Much of any public concern about this critical programme can be attributed to the president's reluctance to sufficiently explain and defend it," said the spokesman, Brendan Buck.

"Transparency is important, but we expect the White House to insist that no reform will compromise the operational integrity of the programme," he said.

Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who has led calls for reform of surveillance out of concern for civil liberties, said that Obama's proposals were "certainly encouraging."

But Wyden voiced concern that Obama did not address another provision known as Section 702.

The Guardian newspaper, citing a document from Snowden, reported Friday that the measure allowed US intelligence to look at US citizens' email and phone records through their contacts with foreigners, whose communications can be monitored without a warrant.

"I believe that this provision requires significant reforms as well and I will continue to fight to close that loophole," Wyden said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union also said that Obama's reforms were insufficient and urged him to release decisions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act's court.

Obama voiced concern about the impact of the surveillance scandal on the image of the United States. US allies, especially Germany, have been livid at revelations from Snowden that the United States is spying on their nationals.

"American leadership around the world depends upon the example of American democracy and American openness," Obama said.

"Because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it's the way we do it - with open debate and democratic process."