DATE IMPORTED:January 17, 2014U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the National Security Agency from the Justice Department in Washington January 17, 2014. Obama announced a major overhaul of a controversial National Security Agency (NSA) program that collects vast amounts of basic telephone call data on foreigners and Americans. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
U.S. President Barack Obama is calling for ending the government's control of phone data from hundreds of millions of Americans, and he promises that "we will not monitor the communications of heads of state and government of our close friends and allies."
The president said Friday he will end the program "as it currently exists." He called for extending some privacy protections to foreign citizens whose communications are scooped up by the U.S.
The moves are more sweeping than many U.S. officials had been anticipating.
Obama's highly anticipated speech, after months of revelations about U.S. spying by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden, said intelligence officials have not intentionally abused the program to invade privacy.
But Obama also said he believes critics of the program have been right to argue that without proper safeguards, the collection could be used to obtain more information about the private lives of Americans and open the door to more intrusive programs.
Obama said the U.S. had a "special obligation" to re-examine its intelligence capabilities because of the potential for trampling on civil liberties.
He also sought to reassure allies and others overseas.
"The bottom line is that people around the world — regardless of their nationality — should know that the United States 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," he said.
He added, "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."
The leaks from Snowden, a fugitive now living in Russia, included revelations the U.S. was monitoring the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, sparking intense anger in Europe.
Obama mentioned "Mr. Snowden" by name and said the "sensational" revelations of classified spying programs could impact U.S. operations for years to come.
While the president has said he welcomed the review of the nation's sweeping surveillance programs, it's all but certain the study would not have happened without the leaks.
Obama warned, however, that "we cannot unilaterally disarm our intelligence agencies." He added, "We know that the intelligence services of other countries — including some who feign surprise over the Snowden disclosures — are constantly probing our government and private sector networks."
But he said the U.S. must be held to a higher standard. "No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs, or Russia to take the privacy concerns of citizens into account," he said.
No guidance on where phone records should go
Key questions about the future of the surveillance apparatus remain. While Obama wants to strip the NSA of its ability to store the phone records, he offered no recommendation for where the data should be moved. Instead, he gave the intelligence community and the attorney general 60 days to study options.
He also immediately ordered intelligence agencies to get a secretive court's permission before accessing such records.
Privacy advocates say moving the data outside the government's control could minimize the risk of unauthorized or overly broad searches by the NSA.
The changes are expected to be met with criticism from some in the intelligence community, who have been pressing Obama to keep the surveillance programs largely intact.
Snowden faces espionage charges in the U.S. but is currently living in Russia, where he was granted temporary asylum. Some privacy advocates have pressed Obama to grant him amnesty or a plea deal if he returns to the U.S., but the White House has so far dismissed those ideas.