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Obama edges closer to decisions on intelligence reforms

U.S. President Barack Obama waves after he urges Congress to act and extend emergency unemployment insurance benefits while at an event in t
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after he urges Congress to act and extend emergency unemployment insurance benefits while at an event in t

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama consulted intelligence officials on Wednesday on ways to rein in U.S. surveillance practices as he nears the end of a review likely to lead to changes as to how bulk telephone data is handled as well as restrictions to spying on foreign leaders.

Obama, who could announce his intelligence reforms in a speech as early as next week, is acting in an attempt to restore Americans' confidence in U.S. intelligence services after damaging disclosures from former spy contractor Edward Snowden about the sweep of surveillance practices.

Obama reviewed the progress of the administration's review in a meeting with James Clapper, the director of U.S. intelligence, and Keith Alexander, the National Security Agency director, as well as Attorney General Eric Holder and Vice President Joe Biden.

"This was an important chance for the president to hear directly from his team as he begins to make final decisions about how we move forward with key intelligence collection programs," said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.

Obama also met with members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a bipartisan independent panel that has been reviewing U.S. surveillance practices, including the collection of telephone data and the operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The privacy oversight board said it would offer its findings to Obama in late January or early February, meaning its recommendations will not get to the president until after he has already announced his reform plans.

Obama is due to meet several U.S. lawmakers on Thursday as he firms up his review.

The reform plan is expected to include some restrictions on spying on foreign leaders, an issue that arose late last year when it was reported that the National Security Agency had monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone.

Obama spoke to Merkel by phone on Wednesday, but the White House said the conversation was for Obama to express condolences over her breaking her pelvis recently in a cross-country skiing accident.

An outside group had recommended to Obama last month that before spying on foreign leaders, U.S. leaders should determine whether such surveillance is merited by significant threats to national security and whether the country involved is one "whose leaders we should accord a high degree of respect and deference."

Obama is also open to changes in taking the storage of bulk telephone data out of direct government control, administration officials say. One option would be to allow some bulk phone data collected by intelligence agencies to be kept by private companies instead of the U.S. government.

Revelations about the government's ability to monitor Americans' phone and email traffic were among the most dramatic disclosures from Snowden, who is currently living in temporary asylum in Russia and sought by the United States to face espionage charges.

Obama is also seeking to make sure that civil liberties concerns have greater prominence in the deliberations of the top-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves law enforcement requests to conduct surveillance of Americans or foreigners.

One proposal he is considering is to put a public advocate on the court to ensure adversarial views are heard.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, editing by G Crosse)

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