WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The political uproar over alleged U.S. eavesdropping on close European allies has produced an unusual defense from the National Security Agency: NSA says it was the Europeans themselves who did the spying, and then handed data to the Americans.
It is rare for intelligence officials to speak in any public detail about liaison arrangements with foreign spy agencies because such relationships are so sensitive. Even more unusual is for the United States to point fingers at partners.
But that is what NSA Director General Keith Alexander did at a public congressional hearing on Tuesday when, attempting to counter international complaints about the agency’s alleged excesses, he said its sources for foreign telecommunications information included “data provided to NSA by foreign partners.”
Alexander’s disclosure marked yet another milestone in NSA’s emergence from the shadows to defend its electronic surveillance mission in the wake of damaging revelations by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.
“It is true that in general we stay close-mouthed about intelligence liaison relationships and we only speak in the most general terms about sharing things with our friends and allies,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst.
But, he said, there was nothing wrong in correcting information that was out in public, even though Alexander probably “created or exacerbated some political problems” for a number of European allies with his comments.
“Given the hypocrisy being exhibited by the Europeans in saying they are ‘shocked, shocked’ that these sorts of things go on - allies spying on allies - I don’t think we should feel much compunction about having them feel a little bit of domestic political heat if that is necessary to set the story straight in one of our own congressional hearings,” Pillar said.
One U.S. official said that before going public with the revelation that telecommunications metadata was collected and supplied to the United States by foreign governments like France and Spain, the Obama administration consulted with the governments concerned. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
Metadata refers to information about a phone call or email - the length of a call and the number dialed, for example - that does not include the communication’s actual content.
A second U.S. official said that, regardless of foreign governments’ reactions, some Obama administration officials wanted to make the information public anyway because they were disappointed at how allies were willing to let Washington take the heat for surveillance activities in which they themselves were partners.
Since early June, the NSA has been forced to defend its eavesdropping operations in public after Snowden leaked information about top-secret spy programs that collect phone, email and social media records, including those generated by Americans, to writers and media outlets, including Britain’s Guardian and the Washington Post.
The NSA continues battling the perception its programs are large and intrusive. The Post reported on Wednesday that the agency has tapped directly into communications links used by Google and Yahoo to move huge amounts of email and other user information among overseas data centers.
Reports that the United States was eavesdropping on the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spying on the leaders and citizens of some of its closest European allies - Germany, France, and Spain - drew harsh criticism across Europe.
Mike McConnell, a former NSA director, said at a Bloomberg Government conference on Wednesday that Merkel should not have been surprised about alleged U.S. eavesdropping on her cellphone because world leaders are prime targets for such spying.
“The number one target on the globe is the president of the United States. By everyone,” he said. “All nation states do this.”
Pillar said this cuts both ways: during the recent U.S. government shutdown, European allies were probably scrambling to get as much intelligence as possible about the state of play in Washington, he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said this week that the White House had informed her intelligence collection on U.S. allies “will not continue.”
But it is unclear whether that represents a blanket ban.
The NSA uproar prompted delegations from the European Union and Germany to descend on Washington demanding answers.
After meetings in Washington, a delegation of European Parliament members expressed dismay that U.S. officials had provided “no satisfactory reply” to questions regarding the allegations that the NSA had eavesdropped on Merkel’s phone calls and those of leaders of unnamed countries friendly to the United States.
In a communiqué, the delegation also said it had received no clarification as to what the White House knew about this alleged NSA eavesdropping.
The delegation warned that if the U.S. response to European concerns about surveillance proved too feeble, that could further damage commercial, diplomatic and legal relations.
On Wednesday U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice held a meeting at the White House with her German counterpart in an effort to ease the transatlantic tensions.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis also participated, American officials said.
European media have pointed to an NSA slide published by France’s Le Monde newspaper as showing that the United States was collecting bulk telephone data on millions of European citizens. But U.S. officials say that slide was misinterpreted.
A U.S. national security official said that the slide actually referred to a program under which French authorities supplied to U.S. intelligence agencies large amounts of raw telephone call data.
That data related to communications transmitted outside France but that passed through telecoms systems or switches to which France had direct, or at least readier, access than NSA itself.
The official indicated that this same scenario applied to allegations regarding the NSA collection of large amounts of metadata in Spain.
Another U.S. official familiar with NSA programs said that the metadata collection was inaccurately characterized in French and Spanish media reports.
It was collected by those governments themselves and turned over to the United States, and the collection was conducted on targets outside of their countries in war zones or countries that are major targets for Western counter-terrorism operations, the official said.
Some of that information, one U.S. official said, helped in investigating at least three counter-terrorism cases in which leads emerged that proved to be productive.
There is “nothing scandalous” about such cooperative joint collection, the official insisted.
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Warren Strobel and Xavier Briand