NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said in congressional testimony that reports of the US gathering information on tens of millions of phone calls in France and Spain were “completely false.” The comment was one highlight of a House Intelligence Committee hearing about how to improve information gathering and privacy protections.
The hearing took place amid an international uproar over reports last week that the NSA monitored the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a decade – part of a pattern of the agency eavesdropping on friendly countries’ leaders.
Officials at the hearing did nothing to deny that such spying takes place. If anything, their answers cast doubt on White House assertions that President Obama did not know the extent of the spying on Chancellor Merkel.
Asked by Chairman Mike Rogers (R) of Michigan if the US would consider it important to get access to the communications of foreign leaders, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper responded that knowing “leadership intentions” was “one of the first things I learned in intelligence school in 1963.”
When asked further by Chairman Rogers if America’s allies “conduct espionage on us,” Mr. Clapper responded “absolutely” – before summarizing that the brouhaha over friends-on-friends spying reminded him of a scene from the movie “Casablanca.”
“My God, there’s gambling going on here,” Clapper said, offering his own version of the famous line in which a policeman expresses “shock” at finding gambling in the movie’s snazzy club and gambling den. “It’s the same sort of thing.”
As for the “false” reports of the NSA gathering millions of European phone records, General Alexander said that the data in question – part of documents divulged by Edward Snowden to European media – were actually collected by foreign intelligence agencies. Moreover, to a large extent, they were gathered outside of Europe, often in war zones of crucial security interest to the US and its European allies.
“This is not information we collected on European citizens,” Alexander said, defining it instead as “information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
The documents Mr. Snowden provided European media were actually screenshots of data and were not the documents themselves, Alexander said.
Some committee members asked why European leaders would offer such harsh judgments of US intelligence practices if their services are doing the same thing.
Some European parliamentarians and policymakers “may not have familiarity with exactly how their intelligence operations work,” Clapper said, adding that officials are often unaware of “everything” their own intelligence agencies do.
Europe’s uproar over US intelligence practices overshadowed the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing, which was to discuss proposed reforms to the NSA’s program for bulk collection of communications under the Foreign Intelligence Security Act (FISA). One proposal from a bipartisan group of House and Senate members would effectively discontinue the program, while an opposing bipartisan collection of lawmakers would keep the program intact while focusing on strengthening its privacy protections.
The House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, said the program “allows the government to connect the dots” of brewing terrorist activities.
“I shudder to think what would happen if the program were completely eliminated,” he said.
But he added that “FISA must be reformed” to increase “transparency” and “privacy protections” if the government wants to “restore the public’s confidence” in national intelligence activities.
The NSA’s Alexander said the record offers proof that the US intelligence community is getting things right. Contrasting a tally of more than 2,300 deaths overseas last year in terrorist attacks with the absence of any “mass casualty” attack in the US since 9/11, he said, “That’s not by luck.”
But Alexander also said the door was open to improving both the NSA’s operations and its protections of civil liberties and privacy. “We’re doing the right things,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change.”