WASHINGTON – Senior U.S. intelligence officials on Tuesday staunchly defended the National Security Agency, all but confirming that the White House knew about the tapping of foreign leaders’ telephones, denying that millions of European citizens’ telephone data were swept up and asserting that the European allies assist the NSA even as they spy on U.S. officials.
“We only do what the policymakers writ large have asked us to do,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing.
The hearing came amid a growing outcry at home and in Europe over disclosures of some of the NSA’s most secret communications collection programs in documents leaked to news media by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden. They included the tapping of telephones of 35 world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The revelations have strained trans-Atlantic relations, prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation in Congress to tighten restrictions on NSA operations and ignited a Senate Intelligence Committee review of all U.S. intelligence-gathering operations.
The leaks have created new headaches for President Obama, who was expected to order a ban on the monitoring of allied leaders’ communications as part of an administration review aimed at balancing U.S. intelligence-gathering programs with privacy and civil liberties protections. The administration also has acknowledged that additional restraints may be required given the power of the technology now used by U.S. intelligence agencies.
The White House has cited the secrecy of intelligence operations in steadfastly refusing to answer in public questions about what Obama knew, especially whether he authorized the eavesdropping on Merkel and other leaders. At the same time, a stream of news media reports have appeared this week in which anonymous administration officials insisted that the president wasn’t aware of the monitoring of Merkel.
As they defended the NSA’s operations as legal and authorized, however, Clapper as much as confirmed that members of Obama’s National Security Council staff knew about the tapping of the telephones of foreign leaders.
Responding to what appeared to be closely coordinated questioning from sympathetic House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., Clapper described how the requirements for U.S. intelligence collections and analyses are set in an annual National Intelligence Priorities Framework.
“It’s a fairly rigorous process,” which collates intelligence requirements from State, Defense and other departments “as well as those of the national security staff, and, accordingly, the president’s requirements are embedded in that document,” he explained.
Clapper was asked whether as “part of that framework …. the plans and intentions of foreign leaders would be important to the United States?”
“That’s a hearty perennial,” Clapper answered. “As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions … is kind of a basic tenet of what we’re to collect and analyze.”
Knowing the intentions of foreign leaders, Clapper said, helps U.S. officials understand policies and perspectives that impact the United States. He agreed with Rogers that “the best way” to obtain that information is to “actually get communications of a foreign leader.”
The hearing was briefly disrupted by protesters shouting, “What about spying on our allies? That’s just ridiculous!” and “Lies, lies and more lies.”
NSA Director Keith Alexander, an Army general, joined Clapper at the hearing in defending the workforce of the NSA, the agency’s court-approved collections of the data of tens of millions of Americans’ daily telephone calls, and monitoring of Americans suspected of links to terrorists.
The data only is available to a small number of specially trained “selectors,” Alexander said, and the programs are subject to rigorous congressional oversight.
It’s not “by luck” that there have been no successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001, Alexander said.
“What we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans, or for that matter, spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country,” said Alexander. “We only spy for valid foreign intelligence purposes as authorized by law.”
Alexander and Rogers engaged in a verbal pas de deux in pushing back against outrage in Europe over news reports citing documents leaked by Snowden that the NSA collected the data of telephone calls made by tens of millions of people in France, Spain and Italy.
Alexander rejected the reports as “completely false,” saying that the journalists who published them misinterpreted screen shots from an unidentified “web tool used for data management purposes.”