Spying on allies called typical
WASHINGTON — Facing lawmakers who suggest U.S. surveillance has gone too far, the national intelligence director on Tuesday defended spying on foreign allies as necessary and said such scrutiny of America's friends — and vice versa — is commonplace.
Another top intelligence official said the collection of phone records that prompted outrage across the Atlantic was conducted with the help of European governments. News reports that the National Security Agency swept up millions of phone records in France, Spain and elsewhere were inaccurate and reflected a misunderstanding of “metadata” that was collected by NATO allies and shared with the United States, the director of the NSA told a congressional hearing.
The nation's post-Sept. 11 surveillance programs have received sharp criticism that swelled with recent revelations that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone and those of as many as 34 other world leaders. Those reports relied on documents provided by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper defended the secret surveillance that sweeps up phone records and emails of millions of Americans as vital to defending against terrorists.
He played down European allies' complaints about spying on their leaders, saying the allies do it, too.
“That's a hardy perennial,” Clapper told a House intelligence committee hearing.
He said during his 50 years working in intelligence, it was “a basic tenet” to collect, whether by spying on communications or through other sources, confidential information about foreign leaders that reveals “if what they're saying gels with what's actually going on.”
Committee Chairman Mike Rogers asked whether allies had conducted the same type of espionage against U.S. leaders.
“Absolutely,” Clapper responded.
Asked about collection of foreign phone records, the NSA's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, testified that the United States did not collect European records alone, as was reported in the past week to an outcry of criticism across Europe.
Alexander said the United States was given data by NATO partners, often collected from elsewhere around the world, as part of a program to protect military interests. He disputed that the program targeted European citizens but did not offer specifics. He called the reports “completely false.”
As for efforts at home, the intelligence leaders defended sweeping up records of U.S. phone calls as necessary to combat terrorism. The Obama administration vigorously opposes efforts to curtail the internal spying programs that have angered some Americans.
Rogers urged lawmakers not to scrap an important investigative tool.
“We can't ask the FBI to find terrorists plotting an attack and then not provide them with the information they need,” he said.
A bipartisan plan introduced on Tuesday would end the NSA's sweep of phone records, allowing the government to seek only records related to ongoing terror investigations.
In rare agreement, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, both said on Tuesday that it was time for a thorough review of NSA programs. Both have been strong supporters of the programs.
The White House said President Obama ordered a full review of the programs and was considering changes.