By Tabassum Zakaria and Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. National Security Agency director on Tuesday defended the spy agency as acting within legal boundaries, amid a public uproar which has grown from anger over the collection of Americans’ phone and email records to outrage over spying on European allies.
General Keith Alexander offered an impassioned defense of the beleaguered intelligence agency, telling the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that the NSA is focused on preventing attacks on Americans and allies, and operates under strict oversight.
“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.
Under sympathetic questioning from the committee chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, Alexander 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 was 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.”
Rogers warned that collecting foreign intelligence was important to protecting Americans and allies from terrorism.
“Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is not unique to the United States,” Rogers said in prepared opening remarks at the committee hearing. “What is unique to the United States is our level of oversight, our commitment to privacy protections, and our checks and balances on intelligence collection.”
At the hearing, witnesses included Alexander, NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Protesters in the hearing room held signs that said “stop spying on us” and yelled “lies, lies and more lies.”
The intelligence chiefs are appearing against a backdrop of angry European allies accusing the United States of spying on their leaders and citizens.
The most prominent target appears to have been German Chancellor Angela Merkel. 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 material given to journalists by Snowden, 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 amid growing debate over whether new limitations should be placed on NSA activities, and as multiple reviews of agency 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 Sept. 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.”
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee , 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 a review of intelligence programs prompted by disclosures about top-secret spying programs to the media by Snowden, who is living in Russia, out of reach of U.S. attempts to arrest him.
The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a hearing in September at which Feinstein said proposals included putting limits on the NSA’s phone data program, prohibiting collection of the content of phone calls, and legally requiring that intelligence analysts have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number was associated with terrorism in order to query the database.
Rogers said some of the proposals being considered in Congress “would effectively gut the operational usefulness of programs that are necessary to protect America’s national security.”
And he warned, “We cannot go back to a pre-9/11 mindset and risk failing to ‘connect the dots’ again.”