NSA chief defends agency amid U.S. spy rift with Europe

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 29, 2013 6:46pm EDT

1 of 10. Chris Inglis (L), Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander (2nd L), director of the National Security Agency, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (R) are pictured at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 29, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the National Security Agency defended his beleaguered organization on Tuesday, saying it acts within the law to stop militant attacks and calling reports that the NSA collected data on millions of phone calls in Europe false.

Army General Keith Alexander, testifying with other U.S. spy chiefs before the House of Representatives Intelligence committee, sought to defuse a growing controversy over reports of NSA snooping on citizens and leaders of major U.S. allies.

The hearing took place as Congress is weighing new legislative proposals that could limit some of the NSA's more expansive electronic intelligence collection programs.

"It is much more important for this country that we defend this nation and take the beatings than it is to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked," Alexander said, referring to criticism of his agency.

On Monday, that criticism broadened to include Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate's intelligence panel and a long-time ally of U.S. spy agencies.

The White House has moved to limit some NSA programs, including one that monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Reuters reported on Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama has also curtailed NSA monitoring of United Nations headquarters in New York.

But under sympathetic questioning from the committee chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, Alexander said reports of NSA spying in Europe were exaggerated. He called media reports in France, Spain and Italy that the NSA collected data on tens of millions of phone calls in those countries "completely false."

Some of the data referenced in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden were collected not just by the NSA itself but was also "provided to NSA by foreign partners," he said. "This is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations."

The U.S. intelligence officials also sought to turn the tables, saying that Europeans also spy on the United States.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper replied "absolutely" when Rogers asked him whether allies conducted espionage against the United States and its leaders.

Rogers got into a heated debate with Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, an NSA critic, who questioned Clapper about whether the intelligence community thought eavesdropping on allied leaders was important enough to have informed the committee.

Rogers, a former FBI agent, told Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, that all committee members could wade through "mounds" of information provided by intelligence agencies.

Schiff said it would be "disingenuous … to suggest that we have information if we don't have it."

To which Rogers shot back: "To say that this committee is somehow in the dark on intelligence activities is simply not accurate."

Feinstein said on Monday that her Senate panel "was not satisfactorily informed" of some NSA activities.

EUROPEAN ANGER

The intelligence chiefs appeared against a backdrop of angry accusations by European allies that the United States spies on their leaders and citizens, accusations prompted by highly classified documents that Snowden leaked to media organizations.

Alexander, however, described Snowden as a website administrator without access to the most secret of files.

The loudest protests have come from Germany over reports of U.S. monitoring of Merkel's communications. A German media report last week said the United States monitored her mobile phone. The White House did not deny the report but has said no such surveillance is taking place now.

More than any previous disclosures from the Snowden documents, the reports of spying on close U.S. allies have forced the White House to promise reforms and even acknowledge that America's electronic surveillance may have gone too far.

Clapper told the hearing that one of the most fundamental missions of U.S. intelligence agencies is to understand foreign leaders' intentions. He spoke broadly and historically and did not refer to any specific leaders.

"Leadership intentions are an important dimension of the landscape out there for all policymakers," he said.

The hearing took place as multiple reviews of NSA programs are under way or being launched by the White House and Congress.

The top Republican in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, told reporters there should be a review of NSA spying on allied leaders. He said the United States must balance its obligations to allies with its responsibility to keep Americans safe.

Two lawmakers from different political parties introduced legislation to end the government's "dragnet collection" of information. The bill also calls for greater oversight, transparency and accountability for domestic surveillance.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act implemented after the September 11, 2001, attacks, to improve the government's ability to protect its citizens, now want to make sure information gathering does not go too far.

"No one underestimates the threat this country continues to face, and we can all agree that the intelligence community should be given necessary and appropriate tools to help keep us safe," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "But we should also agree that there must be reasonable limits on the surveillance powers we give to the government."

Feinstein joined the ranks of critics on Monday, expressing outrage at American intelligence collection on allies, and pique that her committee was not informed.

"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies - including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," said Feinstein, who has been a staunch defender of some of the NSA programs leaked by Snowden.

The White House is conducting reviews of intelligence programs prompted by disclosures from Snowden and said it has already made some unspecified changes. Snowden is living in Russia, out of reach of U.S. attempts to arrest him.

Alexander said Snowden's job was "to administer a website that brought information into NSA Hawaii for the people in NSA Hawaii" and he did not have access to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act data or some of the agency's most sensitive information.

Snowden had "tremendous access" to information about "core capabilities" for NSA product reporting and he took a lot of that, Alexander said. "It wasn't that he had knowledge, because he clearly didn't understand things about how these tools actually operate."

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Warren Strobel, Mohammad Zargham and Cynthia Osterman)

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Comments (42)
mb56 wrote:
Anyone else outraged that what has apparently finally gotten Congress’s attention is the spying on our allies and NOT the massive Constitutional violations perpetrated against the American citizens? BOTH are egregious – but last I checked, foreigners were not protected by our Constitution. Congress seems to be quite myopic when it comes to protecting the American people from these abuses, and THAT’S outrageous!

Oct 28, 2013 12:59am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Bakhtin wrote:
The constitution is just a piece of paper. It was not written by God, has validity only as long as the US government and/or courts give it validity, and if if it were ripped up nothing much would change. This means that if the US government decides it is okay to spy on American citizens it can do.

Expecting Congress – part of the government – to do anything about it is a bit naive. It was a Republican Congress that passed the Patriot Act,which is probably the biggest expansion of government power in US history. Remember the right-wing mantra that only criminals had anything to fear? No Congress and no government is ever going to repeal that and reduce their own power.

I agree that the NSA becoming essentially the US Secret Police and spying on Americans is bad. It it treating the population as the enemy, and you have to ask what kind of government fears its own population.

I don’t agree that spying on foreigners is okay because they are not covered by the US constitution. By that same argument, foreign governments can ignore the US constitution – does that mean it is okay for them to spy on Americans? Spying on foreigners is far worse, because it violates IHL, and is treating foreigners as the enemy. Nobody likes being treated as the enemy.

The problem with the NSA is that it follows old Soviet ideas on intelligence, specifically by trawling for information instead of chasing specific criminals. It also searches for political and commercial information which makes it a tool of the US government, AKA a secret police.

Oct 29, 2013 1:45am EDT  --  Report as abuse
John30303 wrote:
” testimony is a solemn attestation as to the truth of a matter.”

Just WHAT connection with truth does Mr. Clapper (& the other two) have with truth?

Clapper lied to Congress under oath and doesn’t even get a slap on the wrist; Martha Stewart supposedly lied to the FBI – not under oath – and went to prison.

Oct 29, 2013 3:14am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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