WASHINGTON - The director of the National Security Agency on Tuesday dismissed as “completely false” reports that his agency swept up millions of phone records of European citizens, and he revealed that data collected by NATO allies were shared with the United States.
Gen. Keith Alexander said foreign intelligence services collected phone records in war zones and other areas outside their borders and provided them to the spy agency ? an operation that was misunderstood by French and Spanish newspapers that reported that the NSA was conducting surveillance in their countries.
“This is not information that we collected on European citizens,” Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
Alexander made the comments in response to questions from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers about reports that the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records in a one-month period late last year and early this year and intercepted more than 60 million phone calls in Spain during the same time frame.
The reports, based on revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, stirred public anger and prompted a diplomatic protest from France.
Apparently referring to a slide outlining the information, Alexander said the leaker and reporters “did not understand what they were looking at.” The sources of the data on the slide included information the NSA collected under its various authorities, as well as data that foreign partners provided to the agency, he said.
Separately, several current and former officials on Tuesday described a 2008 incident in which Germany’s BND intelligence service inadvertently turned over a list of 300 phone numbers of U.S. citizens and residents, raising suspicion that Germany was conducting surveillance in the United States. Berlin and Washington also cooperate on intelligence matters, officials said.
The disclosure apparently was intended to deflect some of the criticism Washington has faced over revelations that the NSA had for years tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which set off a furor last week.
The German Embassy in Washington declined to comment.
Alexander appeared alongside Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and two other top administration officials at a hearing called to discuss reforms to NSA surveillance programs that were overtaken by the allegations of spying against European allies and debate about the proper scope of such surveillance.
The French and Spanish intelligence agencies have had extensive, long-running programs to share millions of phone records with the United States for counterterrorism and defense purposes, according to current and former officials familiar with the effort.
The information was not phone calls’ content but records of phone calls or “metadata” collected “by French intelligence agencies and provided to us,” said a senior Obama administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. “We share information with many countries.”
The information focused on Afghanistan and “elsewhere outside of France,” the official said. The official described a similar arrangement with Spain, whose intelligence agencies shared information it collected overseas with its U.S. counterparts.
The failure of the French government to challenge a report in Le Monde that accused the NSA of conducting a widespread surveillance effort on French soil has vexed the Obama administration, which has felt hamstrung to respond, the official said. “We have wrestled with how you correct a story that’s wrong about classified operations ? particularly operations that are not yours.”
The situation with France is “very delicate, diplomatically,” the official said. “You can feel free to ask them why they didn’t explain this” when media reports first surfaced, the official said.
The French Embassy in Washington, on behalf of the government, declined to comment.
French President Francois Hollande, after a telephone call last week with President Barack Obama, voiced deep disapproval, saying that such practices “are unacceptable between allies and friends, because they violate the privacy of French citizens.”
At the hearing, Clapper said European policymakers often are not aware of everything their intelligence agencies are up to and “may not have familiarity with exactly how their intelligence operations work.” He added that “there is no other country on this planet” that exercises oversight of intelligence activities to the extent that the United States does.
Administration officials have said Obama was not aware until late summer that the NSA had tapped Merkel’s cellphone, and he ordered it stopped. And Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein said that her panel was not “satisfactorily informed” of the collection effort against allied heads of state and that she is “totally opposed” to such actions.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House panel, also chastised the intelligence community for failing, he said, to keep the committee informed of its surveillance of foreign allies. “If you’re tapping the phone line of a foreign leader or ally, I think it is a significant intelligence activity that should be reported to the committee.” He said such acts have potential for “the kind of blowback” being seen today, and thus should be put to policymakers. “Is it worth the risk of that blowback in light of the information we gather?” he said.
Rogers, clearly peeved about the perception that the NSA was overstepping bounds, asked Clapper whether eavesdropping on foreign leaders was standard practice. “As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form that’s expressed is a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze,” Clapper said.
He also said flatly that U.S. allies, including European Union members, have engaged in espionage targeted at the United States.
Nonetheless, Hollande and Merkel said they will head an effort by the European Union to force the United States to adopt new overseas surveillance rules.
In their testimony, Alexander and Clapper broadly defended the NSA’s monitoring of telephone records and email traffic under existing law, arguing that the programs have helped prevent terrorist attacks.
The House intelligence panel is considering possible changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as part of what it called an effort to “increase transparency and rebuild Americans’ confidence” in NSA programs. The law is intended to allow electronic surveillance of people allegedly involved in espionage or terrorism on behalf of foreign powers.