US will not 'unilaterally disarm' its spy network, Obama says

In much anticipated speech, Obama aims to assuage concerns over NSA tactics, says US will continue investigating intentions of foreign leaders.

US President Barack Obama speaking on Jan 17 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama speaking on Jan 17 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON -- In a major address at the US Department of Justice on Friday, President Barack Obama stood firm behind American spying practices on governments overseas, pushing back against foreign allies that "feigned" shock at revelations of metadata collection made public by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.


In particular, the president called out the reactions of China and Russia, on both intelligence gathering and on their respect for human privacy and dignity, as hypocritical.

"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, and accelerating programs to listen to our conversations, and intercept our emails, and compromise our systems," Obama said.

"The legal safeguards that restrict surveillance against U.S. persons without a warrant do not apply to foreign persons overseas," he continued. "This is not unique to America; few, if any, spy agencies around the world constrain their activities beyond their own borders."

In a speech prepared over the past several months by the president and his team, Obama aimed to assuage concerns at home over the tactics of the National Security Agency, which has been collecting massive amounts of data on the duration, origin and destination of phone calls across the country, and the world, for several years.

The president said that while the country had not previously known about the practice, foreign governments have; and that he had ordered stricter rules of oversight when taking office that were swiftly approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

"Relationships with foreign intelligence services have expanded, and our capacity to repel cyber-attacks have been strengthened," he said. "And taken together, these efforts have prevented multiple attacks and saved innocent lives— not just here in the United States, but around the globe."

Revelations that the US had been spying on the leaders of Israel and Germany led to condemnation from leaders across the world, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who called the practice an "unacceptable" breach of trust.

But Obama made clear in his speech that, while the US would take steps to respect the privacy of foreign persons, its intelligence agencies would continue to investigate the intentions of foreign leaders in good faith and and as "real partners."

"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," Obama charged. "We will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective."