NSA Chief: Europeans Are Complaining About Their Own Spying Programs

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NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander speaks at Tuesday's hearing. Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

The NSA's director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, came to Tuesday's House Intelligence Committee hearing with an excellent defense against the recent uproar in Europe over the agency's spying: The millions of French, Spanish, and Italian phone records reportedly swept up by the NSA were actually collected by European intelligence agencies. Dismissing recent reports as "completely false," he claimed the documents from Edward Snowden were misinterpreted by French, Spanish, and Italian newspapers to mean that surveillance was being conducted in their countries. "This is not information we collected on European citizens," said Alexander. "It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations."

Alexander said the data in question was mostly collected outside of Europe, then shared with the NSA in an effort to combat threats against allied troops and civilians. "What we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans or, for that matter, spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country," added Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. "We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes."

A senior Obama administration official told the Washington Post on Tuesday that they've "wrestled with how you correct a story that’s wrong about classified operations — particularly operations that are not yours." The official said of the French government, "You can feel free to ask them why they didn’t explain this," when the report appeared in Le Monde.

At the hearing, Clapper suggested that top European officials might have remained silent because they don't know the extent of their own government's spying, and "may not have familiarity with exactly how their intelligence operations work." It's the same excuse offered for President Obama in recent days, but the intelligence officials pushed back at the suggestion that White House officials weren't fully aware of the NSA's spying operations. Clapper conceded that they may not know all the details, since "We’re talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements."

Intelligence officials did not attempt to debunk reports that the U.S. spied on dozens of world leaders, so Europeans can still be furious about that. Though, when asked if U.S. allies are spying on the U.S., Clapper replied, "Absolutely."