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Obama refuses to be drawn on idea of Snowden amnesty

Activists take part in a demonstration asking Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (background) to grant Edward Snowden political asylum during the Expo Catadores 2013 at the Anhembi Pavilion in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on December 19, 2013
Activists take part in a demonstration asking Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (background) to grant Edward Snowden political asylum during the Expo Catadores 2013 at the Anhembi Pavilion in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on December 19, 2013

President Barack Obama on Friday refused to weigh in on whether fugitive intelligence leaker Edward Snowden should receive amnesty despite his revealing the vast scope of US digital spy sweeps.

Obama, addressing reporters at a year-end White House press conference, said he welcomed a debate about the role of the National Security Agency, as he weighs possible changes to its broad powers.

But he also lamented that revelations made by Snowden, who is facing espionage charges at home and has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, had done "unnecessary damage" to the United States.

"I've got to be careful here... because Mr. Snowden is under indictment. He's been charged with crimes, and that's the province of the attorney general and ultimately a judge and a jury. So, I can't weigh in specifically on this case at this point," Obama said.

An NSA official who headed the task force investigating the damage from the Snowden leaks, Rick Ledgett, told CBS television's "60 Minutes" earlier this month that he would be open to a deal for Snowden.

"My personal view is, yes, it's worth having a conversation about," Ledgett told the news magazine program.

But NSA chief General Keith Alexander rejected the idea of any amnesty for the 30-year-old, saying it would set a dangerous precedent for future leakers.

Tens of thousands of documents leaked by Snowden, Time magazine's runner-up behind Pope Francis for its person of the year, to The Guardian newspaper and other media outlets have detailed the nature of the NSA's hitherto shadowy activities.

The president, who said he would make a "pretty definitive statement" in January about how the NSA should be overhauled, repeated several times that the debate sparked by Snowden was necessary.

He emphasized the need to reach the proper counter-balance between national security and privacy concerns, which increased after Snowden revealed the NSA's mass storage of domestic phone records.

"I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that... we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that," he said.

"And we've got to provide more confidence to the international community."

But the president, who was on Friday heading off to Hawaii for the Christmas holidays, pulled no punches in criticizing the manner in which Snowden had leaked the information.

"As important and as necessary as this debate has been, it is also important to keep in mind that this has done unnecessary damage to US intelligence capabilities and US diplomacy," he said.

Intelligence chiefs say Snowden's revelations inflicted significant damage on US clandestine operations against terror groups, while deeply embarrassing the Obama administration.

On Wednesday, a panel of legal and intelligence experts chosen by the White House recommended curbing the powers of the NSA, warning that its sweeps in the war on terror have gone too far.

The report said the NSA should halt the mass storage of domestic phone records, and called for new scrutiny on snooping on world leaders plus privacy safeguards for foreigners and fresh transparency over US eavesdropping.

The 300-page report unveiled 46 recommendations to reshape US surveillance policy following the explosive revelations by Snowden, which outraged US allies and civil liberties advocates.

"I think part of what's been interesting about this whole exercise is recognizing that... just because we can do something doesn't mean we necessarily should," Obama told reporters.

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