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“The telephone metadata program under Section 215 [of the Patriot Act] was designed to map the communications of terrorists, so we can see who they may be in contact with as quickly as possible. This capability could also prove valuable in a crisis,” he said. “If a bomb goes off in one of our cities and law enforcement is racing to determine whether a network is posed to conduct additional attacks, time is of the essence. Being able to quickly review telephone connections to assess whether a network exists is critical to that effort.”

The president also is taking a variety of other steps to increase transparency, but most of his moves will require additional review and it’s unclear when they’ll be implemented, if at all.

Mr. Obama believes national security letters, used by the FBI and other government arms to request information related to national security matters and investigations, should not “remain secret indefinitely” and is asking the Justice Department to look into when and how they could be released publicly.

He is not, however, calling for judicial review of those letters.

Mr. Obama is directing his administration to “review for declassification purposes” all future opinions within the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court.

The president also has called on Congress to establish a “panel of advocates” from the privacy and civil liberties realm, along with technology experts, to add additional perspective to the legal review process of all data queries.

Mr. Obama said such a move will provide “an independent voice in significant cases before” the FISA court.

On the foreign policy front, the president also is making clear the U.S. will not spy on heads of state or other world leaders.

“The president believes those leaders should know when he wants to know what he thinks … he’s going to pick up the phone and call them,” an administration official said.

That specific issue came into the spotlight following widespread reports that the U.S. had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone — allegations that the administration has not denied.