U.S. intelligence officials offered no apologies for spying on foreign leaders without specifying who they targeted, defending the practice as the same thing other nations do to the American government.
The national intelligence director and head of the National Security Agency drew a line only at collecting communications records of millions of European citizens. The NSA’s director, Army General Keith Alexander, called European news reports of those activities “completely false.”
“It’s invaluable for us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are and how that would impact us across a whole range of issues,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the House intelligence committee during a hearing yesterday in Washington.
The hearing and White House statements shed little light on whether the NSA spied on leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, how much Congress and Obama knew, and whether the president or congressional oversight committees would do anything to end it.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said a review of surveillance programs is being conducted and some decisions about intelligence gathering have been made, without elaborating.
Revelations about the extent of data and communications swept up by the NSA since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have complicated U.S. relations with allies, particularly in Europe where President Barack Obama is seeking a trans-Atlantic trade agreement.
Clapper, while saying intelligence agencies take direction from the White House and comply with the “spirit and intent of the law” to keep Congress informed, said it doesn’t always seek approval from the executive branch for specific activities.
“There are many things we do with intelligence that if revealed would have the potential for all kinds of blowback,” Clapper said at the hearing.
News reports in France’s Le Monde and Spain’s El Mundo that the NSA collected bulk communications records of European citizens are false, Alexander told the House committee.
The information was collected by other countries and shared with the NSA or U.S. allies, Alexander said in an interview after the hearing. The data didn’t involve records on citizens of Spain or France, Alexander said.
Carney declined to address “specific alleged activities” of the U.S. or its allies and refused to say whether the U.S. has collected surveillance on allies in the past or would do so in the future.
The alleged collection of data on citizens in France and Spain is separate from reports that the U.S. conducted surveillance of foreign leaders, including Merkel.
Merkel shouldn’t be surprised that her phone calls were monitored, Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, said today.
“The No. 1 target on the globe is the president of the United States, by everyone,” McConnell, vice chairman of Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH:US), said at Bloomberg Government’s cybersecurity conference in Washington. “All nation-states do this.”
While defending broad intelligence collection as necessary to defend U.S. security and vowing to review privacy safeguards, Obama and his aides yesterday wouldn’t address allegations that the spying included foreign leaders or answer questions about when and what the president knew.
The accusations about spying on foreign citizens and leaders stem from a series of national security leaks from former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum by Russia.
U.S. spying objectives are established by the White House and national security policy makers, Clapper said. Intelligence agencies don’t initiate their own operations outside of those parameters, Clapper said.
“We do only what the policy makers writ large have asked us to do,” Clapper said.
Even so, Clapper said intelligence agencies don’t always review with the White House so-called selectors that are used to conduct surveillance, a term that refers to a phone number or an e-mail address.
German lawmakers have called for an inquiry while Spain issued its own condemnation of the spying. Delegations from the European Union and Germany are preparing to meet in Washington with U.S. officials to discuss their concerns.
Democratic Representatives Adam Schiff of California and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois questioned whether agencies informed the House intelligence panel about spying on foreign leaders.
“Not all selectors are equal,” Schiff said during the hearing. “When the selector is the chancellor of an allied nation, that’s an exceptional selector.”
In one of the testiest exchanges during the hearing, Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who leads the committee, interrupted Schiff by saying it would be “disingenuous” to imply that the committee wasn’t doing its oversight work.
Rogers didn’t say whether the panel was notified of spying on foreign leaders, nor did Clapper or Alexander. Instead, Rogers said lawmakers could come to the committee’s office “and spend a couple of hours going through mounds of” information there.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in an Oct. 28 statement that she hadn’t been adequately informed about spying on foreign leaders and called for stronger oversight.
Feinstein also said she was told by the White House that data collection “on our allies will not continue.”
White House officials wouldn’t comment on Feinstein’s remarks, saying that a review of surveillance programs will be completed by the end of the year.
To contact the reporters on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at email@example.com; Margaret Talev in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at email@example.com