Intelligence officials appearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday denied collecting the phone records of citizens in France, Spain and Italy, as recently reported by media outlets in those countries.
“The assertions made by Le Monde of France, El Mundo of Spain and L’espresso of Italy are completely false,” said NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, who added that screenshots cited as evidence of collection were from a data management tool and that the newspapers did not understand what they were looking at. “The tool counts metadata and displays metadata. This data was legally collected and provided to us by foreign partners. It is not information we collected on European citizens. It represents data we and our NATO allies collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
The latest Snowden leaks came to a head when allegations surfaced that the NSA and U.S. intelligence were spying on foreign heads of state, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the committee that is part and parcel of intelligence operations, something he learned in school going back to 1963.
“The plans and intentions of foreign leaders is important to know,” Clapper said. “That’s a perennial since I’ve been in intelligence. Leadership intentions is a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze.”
Clapper said foreign heads of state are monitored, and that type of activity is a two-way street with U.S. allies likely conducting the same activity against American leadership.
Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) asked Alexander point-blank if U.S. allies are engaged in espionage against the U.S., to which Alexander replied: “Absolutely,” adding that it’s ongoing.
Clapper said spying on foreign leaders, including allies, helps the U.S. determine whether an ally’s policies and actions are a match.
“It’s invaluable to us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are, and how they impact us on a range of issues,” Clapper said.
Clapper and Alexander again stood up for their actions against a backdrop of oversight they say is unmatched worldwide. Alexander added that the NSA will hire a privacy and civil liberties officer, adding further oversight and compliance obligations to their efforts.
“We want to demonstrate that we have a front door, that we have transparency and we take it seriously,” Alexander said. “This is a huge step forward, and there’s more we have to do in terms of pushing information to the press.”
They were also pushed on a perceived lack of transparency in informing Congress of the wiretapping of foreign leaders as mandated by the 1947 National Security Act. Clapper, however, said the intelligence efforts lived up to the spirit and letter of the law.
Today’s hearing was held under the auspices of potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Alexander defended the actions of the NSA and derided the leaks coming from whistleblower Edward Snowden as treasonous and damaging to the U.S.’ s ability to defend against terrorists