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Obama Vows More Oversight, Transparency For Surveillance Programs

UU.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington on January 17.
U.S. President Barack Obama says Washington will reform current programs and procedures to provide greater transparency to the government's electronic-surveillance activities and increase safeguards that protect the privacy of U.S. persons.

In a televised speech on January 17, he also said he had 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."

The speech comes amid debate over the extent and intent of U.S. electronic-surveillance programs following leaks to the press by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

White House officials say the measures outlined by Obama constitute the most significant reform program in U.S. surveillance since he took office.

In his speech, Obama said intelligence gathering served a vital role in confronting threats, and that the United States could not "disarm unilaterally" its intelligence services.

He said a number of countries publicly criticizing the United States privately acknowledged that U.S. intelligence capabilities are critical to meeting its responsibility as the world's only superpower. He said they also use the information U.S. intelligence agencies collect to protect their own people.

But he also said the United States "is not spying on ordinary people who don't threaten our national security," and that it took their privacy concerns into account.

"No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account," Obama said.

"But let's remember that we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity."

He said U.S. intelligence agencies would only use bulk collection of data for the purposes of fighting terrorism, protecting troops and allies, and combatting crime.

Obama criticized what he called the "sensational" disclosures of classified programs, saying Snowden's leaks have "often shed more heat than light," and could impact U.S. operations for years to come.