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.
Alexander said overseas reports the U.S. had collected tens of millions of phone calls in France, Spain, and other European nations were “completely false.”
That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the foreign intelligence services and provided to the NSA.
“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,” he said.
The White House has tried to control some of the damage from reports of NSA spying on allies. President Obama has promised a thorough review of overseas spying operations and is considering whether to suspend monitoring the leaders of U.S. allies, the New York Times reported.
Following the Snowden leaks, media reports have primarily focused on two authorities under the 2001 Patriot Act and the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). First, the business records provision, known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows the government to legally collect so-called metadata — phone numbers and length of calls – but not content, conversations, or names, according to committee Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.).
The second authority is known as Section 702 of FISA, also known as PRISM, which allows the government to collect the content of email and phone calls of foreigners who are located outside of the U.S.
Both of these authorities are legal and no court has ever struck them down, Ruppersberger noted.
The congressional hearing was meant to discuss potential changes to FISA, which grants the NSA its authority for data collection.
Ruppersberger said Congress is working with the administration and the private sector to explore changes to FISA. He said they are considering a proposal to require a declassification review of any FISA court decision or opinion “to improve transparency without threatening sources and methods.”
The FISA Court grants or refuses surveillance rights requests from U.S. government agencies.
“The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act must be reformed. We have worked with the administration, the Senate, telecommunications companies and other stakeholders to evaluate and vet a range of options. We must approve transparency, privacy protections, and thereby restore the public’s confidence. You cannot truly have privacy without security or security without privacy,” he said.
They are also evaluating congressional reporting, so that all members of Congress, not just those on committees with jurisdictions, can view the classified reports about the programs.
Alexander and Clapper both said they were open to greater transparency around their intelligence-gathering activities.
On Tuesday, dozens of lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to curb the NSA’s surveillance powers.
The USA Freedom Act, which has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 70 in the House, would stop the agency’s massive phone record collection program.
The bill was authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), one of the leading authors of the Patriot Act.