Intelligence Officials Defend Surveillance Programs as Congress Considers Reforms

WASHINGTON – During a grilling by the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday,  top spy chiefs defended their intelligence-gathering activities in the wake of allegations that the United States collected telephone and email records from European citizens.

National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander said the NSA would prefer to “take the beatings” from the public and in the media “than to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked.”

He vigorously defended the agency’s intelligence programs, saying they have helped save lives “not only here, but in Europe, and around the world.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted there is no other country in the world that has the magnitude of oversight over its intelligence apparatus as the U.S. does.

“We operate within a robust framework of strict rules and rigorous oversight involving all three branches of the government,” he said.

Clapper said the manner in which the work of the intelligence agencies has been characterized in recent months has often been “incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading.”

“I believe that most Americans realize the intelligence community exists to collect the vital intelligence that helps protect our nation from foreign threats. We focus on uncovering the secret plans and intentions of our foreign adversaries, as we've been charged to do,” he said. “But what we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans, or for that matter, spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country. We only spy for valid foreign intelligence purposes as authorized by law, with multiple layers of oversight to ensure we don't abuse our authorities.”

Clapper admitted there have been mistakes, but these are caused by “human error or technical problems.”

“Whenever we've found mistakes, we've reported, addressed and corrected them,” he added.

The hearing follows a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. Citing documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, some European newspapers have also reported the U.S. carried out surveillance on French and Spanish citizens.

Last week, the former director of France’s domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, stated in an interview to French newspaper Le Figaro that “there is no reason to be surprised” as allies have been spying on each other for a long time.

“The French intelligence services know full well that all countries, whether or not they are allies in the fight against terrorism, spy on each other all the time,” Squarcini said.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) made reference to the interview, asking Clapper whether those remarks were consistent with what he knew as the director of intelligence operations.

“Absolutely,” Clapper replied. “It's invaluable to us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are, how that would impact us across a whole range of issues, so – and it isn't just leaders themselves. It's what goes on around them and the policies that they convey to their governments.”

Both he and Alexander said that allies conducting espionage against the U.S. and its leaders was just “a basic tenet” of intelligence operations.