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US declassifies phone programme

The top intelligence official in the US is declassifying key details about a secret surveillance programme - a rare move meant to quell a public uproar spurred by the disclosure of the government's massive collection of Americans' data, aimed at combating terrorism.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper insisted the efforts were legal, limited in scope and necessary to detect terrorist threats. He denounced the leaks of highly-classified documents that revealed the programmes and warned that security in the US will suffer.

Mr Clapper called the disclosure of a programme that targets foreigners' internet use "reprehensible" and said the leak of another programme that lets the government collect Americans' phone records would affect how the country's enemies behave and make it harder to understand their intentions.

"The unauthorised disclosure of a top secret US court document threatens potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation," Mr Clapper said of the phone-tracking program.

The Obama administration's defence of the two programmes came as members of Congress were vowing to change a programme they voted to authorise and civil liberties advocates were crying foul, questioning how President Barack Obama, a former constitutional scholar who sought privacy protections as a US senator, could embrace policies with strong echoes of President George W Bush, whose approach to national security he had vowed to leave behind.

The disclosures triggered a fierce debate that cuts across party lines and could overshadow a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

They come at a particularly inopportune time for Mr Obama, whose administration already faces questions over the federal tax agency's improper targeting of conservative groups and the seizure of journalists' phone records in an investigation into who leaked information to the media.

It all adds up to a distraction for the president as he tries to tackle big issues like immigration reform and taxes. And it could erode trust in Mr Obama as he tries to advance his second-term agenda and cement his presidential legacy.

Mr Clapper offered new information about both surveillance programmes, saying he wanted to correct the "misleading impression" created by out-of-context news articles even as he acknowledged that publicly discussing the programmes comes with inherent security risks.

"I believe it is important for the American people to understand the limits of this targeted counter-terrorism programme and the principles that govern its use," Mr Clapper said.

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