NSA chief: We didn't spy on European citizens

Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Chris Inglis, Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Keith Alexander, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole testify during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Updated at 4:06 p.m.

National Security Agency (NSA) Director Gen. Keith Alexander said foreign press reports that the NSA has collected millions of French and Spanish phone records are "completely false."

Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Alexander said, "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 foreign papers that reported the surveillance and the source of the information they viewed "did not understand what they were looking at."

Alexander described the information as "web tool" that records metadata from around the world that combines legally collected NSA records as well as data provided to the agency by foreign partners.

Alexander's remarks came as America's European allies have grown increasingly angry overreports that the U.S. has spied on both those countries' leaders and their citizens.

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment on a Wall Street Journal report that the spying was actually conducted by France and Spain. "We have important cooperative relationships with the security agencies and intelligence agencies of allied nations," he said.

The rare open hearing before the panel was meant to consider proposed changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the laws that allow the NSA's metadata collection.

The committee's chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., opened the hearing with a defense of the country's intelligence collection, which he said has and will help to break up terrorist plots in an increasingly interconnected world.

"Our challenge is to build confidence and transparency while keeping our intelligence services agile and effective against our adversaries," he said. Rogers added that what makes the U.S. unique is not that it collects foreign intelligence - every country does that, he said - but that it has a unique commitment to privacy.

"China does not ask a FISA court for a warrant to listen to a phone call on their state-owned and censored network. The Russian Duma does not conduct oversight on the FSB" he said. "But America has those checks; America has those balances. That is why we should be proud of the manner in which America collects intelligence."

During his opening statement, Alexander argued that the programs have been necessary to keep the country safe.

"It is better for us to have a program and take a beating than have our country be attacked," he said. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who testified alongside Alexander, said, "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."

Among the changes the panel is putting the attorney general, instead of the NSA, in charge of making a "reasonable, articulable suspicion" determination that a particular phone number is related to a terrorist and therefore may be used to search bulk telephone records. They are also examining ways to increase transparency of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, including the possibility of requiring more court orders to be declassified or publicly released in redacted form.

Rogers said transparency could also improve by codifying the process and standards for what happens to information that is incidentally collected about U.S. citizens who are not the target of their programs, and to provide more public reporting how often it happens.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger,D-Md., the committee's ranking member, said, "One key fact we need to keep in mind is that NSA's focus is on foreign threats. Under FISA, NSA does not target Americans in the U.S. and does not target Americans anywhere else, without a court order."

Just before the start of the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced legislation to end the government's collection of phone records en masse under the USA Patriot Act and provide more safeguards for wireless surveillance. The legislation has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

"The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood. It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community," Leahy said.

The entire U.S. surveillance program has been under fire this year after leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the collection of both domestic and foreign communications.

Germany has been particularly incensed after learning that the U.S. government monitored the communications of Chancellor Angela Merkel for years. The White House insists it is not and will not spy on Merkel in the future, but media reports indicate that President Obama only learned of the program this summer.

Clapper defended the data collection on foreign leaders as a routine part of his job.

"As long as I've been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions, in whatever form that's expressed, is kind of a basic tenet of what we're to collect and analyze," he said. He added, when asked by Rogers, that U.S. allies are "absolutely" spying on America and its leaders.

On Monday, Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., indicated that the Senate was also not informed about the program and called for a total review of all intelligence programs.

"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies--including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany--let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," she said in a statement. She also said the White House had informed her that monitoring of the U.S.'s allies would not continue.

The White House did not comment on Feinstein's statement, instead asserting that they are in the middle of a broad review of intelligence collection that will examine "whether we have the appropriate posture when it comes to Heads of State; how we coordinate with our closest allies and partners; and what further guiding principles or constraints might be appropriate for our efforts," according to National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "We are also looking at whether the system that's been in place for many years, called the National Intelligence Priorities Framework, could be modified to provide better policy guidance for our intelligence activities."

The review is expected to conclude by the end of the year.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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