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Obama curbs NSA snooping, bans spying on allies, but won't apologise

President Obama has announced a series of what he calls "concrete and substantial reforms" to the bulk collection of metadata by the American National Security Agency (NSA).

Obama has recommended the formation of "a panel of advocates from outside government" to provide oversight to the NSA's spying programmes, as well as a new White House official in charge of signal intelligence.

Government officials will also run a "comprehensive review of big data and privacy."

"We will allow communications company to make public more information than ever before about the information they provide to the government," he said.

Obama defended the agency's use of metadata collection.

"Let me repeat what I said when this story first broke," he said. "This program does not involve the content of phone calls, or the names of people making calls. Instead, it provides a record of phone numbers and the times and lengths of calls – meta-data that can be queried if and when we have a reasonable suspicion that a particular number is linked to a terrorist organisation."

According to Obama, the NSA's programme "consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead – phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes.."

"I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives, and open the door to more intrusive, bulk collection programs."

Obama also conceded that the bulk metadata programme had "never been subject to vigorous public debate."

Concerning the NSA's spying on foreign leaders, Obama appeared somewhat contrite.

"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. Given the understandable attention that this issue has received, I have 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."

"But let me be clear: our intelligence services will continue to monitor the intentions of governments around the world."

He added an unrepentant note at the end, though:

"We shouldn't have to apologise just because our capabilities are greater than others."