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Obama to revamp surveillance programmes

world Updated: Aug 11, 2013 01:27 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times
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President Barack Obama on Friday announced plans to reform his country's surveillance programmes, which have also targeted Indians, to make them more transparent and safe from abuse.

He intends to expand congressional oversight over them, tighten judicial scrutiny, make public as much information as possible and set up a task force to review them.

Addressing a news conference, Obama said he had already ordered a review of these programmes when Edward Snowden went public in a series of media leaks.

Now, because of those leaks, the debate is taking place in a "very passionate, but not always informed way", the president contended, instead of an "orderly and lawful" manner.

India was a prominent target of these surveillance programmes revealed by Snowden. And its mission in DC was among those routinely spied upon by US intelligence.

But New Delhi has not protested, not publicly at least, unlike Germany, France, Brazil and others. "We would be surprised if they weren't (spying on us)," a senior official has said.

The president's offer to reform these programmes was an attempt to address continuing unease about them both abroad and, more importantly for him, at home.

Some civil liberty activists and lawmakers have been campaigning hard, calling for increased congressional and judicial scrutiny and oversight.

But recent polls show the country believes these programmes have been useful in preventing terrorist strikes, as maintained by the intelligence community.

The House of Representatives agreed, defeating a bill - although narrowly - proposing to end funding to programmes that let NSA collect phone and email records.

But Obama will need to do more perhaps, according these critics.

"Obama's claim that the debate would have happened absent Snowden's revelations is...laughable," tweeted Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who broke the story.

"While the initial reforms outlined by the president are a necessary and welcome first step, they are not nearly sufficient," said the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.

ACLU is demanding the release of opinions and memos of the federal courts that cleared government's request - through the FBI - monitor Americans under these programmes.

Their efficacy - or the lack of it - came up once again this week when the US shut down 19 of missions in West Asia and North African citing a threat picked up by its intelligence community.

The administration has not explained how it picked up the threat - in a communication between al Qaeda leader planning a terrorist attack - but its critics claimed the controversial programmes didn't play a role.

The intercepts did prove, however, that NSA's ability to track terrorists was not as badly impaired by Snowden's leaks as it had claimed in many public and private assertions.