In a rare public hearing on U.S. surveillance practices Tuesday, NSA chief Keith Alexander denied reports that the United States collected data on millions of European citizens. Instead, Alexander claimed, the data was provided by European partners.
“This is not information that we collected on European citizens,” Alexander said in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
He added that media reports about the data were “completely false.” He said that both Edward Snowden and the reporters he leaked stolen NSA documents to misunderstood what they were looking at. Separate reports suggested that much of the information cited in reports of American surveillance in France and Spain was actually provided by French and Spanish intelligence.
But Alexander had no need to be defensive Tuesday afternoon. Even as efforts were underway to alter the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in ways that would limit the NSA’s ability to collect data, House members asked few difficult questions of Alexander, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, and NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis. Instead, the majority of members took the opportunity to praise the NSA while defending its actions against European allies.
"Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is not unique to the United States," committee chair Mike Rogers said. "What is unique to the United States is our level of oversight, our commitment to privacy protections, and our checks and balances on intelligence collection."
The hearing also gave Republicans an opportunity to show support for the NSA as the White House attempted to distance itself from the agency. The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House was unaware of the leadership surveillance programs. In separate reports NSA officials countered that the White House had known about the plan for years.
If anything, the hearing served as a forum for NSA officials and lawmakers to lob counteraccusations at Germany and other European countries who are angry with the United States over its surveillance programs. For instance, Alexander said that German intelligence inadvertently handed over the phone numbers of 300 U.S. citizens in 2008.
The German embassy refused to comment on Alexander’s claims.
GROWING SKEPTICISM TOWARD EUROPE
The hearing was part of a broader trend today that cast skepticism on European claims that they were not informed or involved in surveillance activities. After days of coverage tilted against the United States, some officials in Europe began to cask doubt on European innocence in the international spy game.
For instance, spy novelist Frederick Forsyth, a former journalist based in Berlin, dismissed Merkel’s claims of ignorance.
“Frau Merkel has been listened to since she was a teenager," Forsyth told Reuters. "The only thing that amazes me about the furor is that it amazes people."
"Anyone who's been aware of what's been going on the last 30 years would presume all electronic communications are being listened to by someone," he added.
Others suggested that jealously over American capabilities was behind the complaints.
“Let’s be honest, we eavesdrop, too," former French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner said in an interview with a French radian station. "Everyone is listening to everyone else. But we don’t have the same means as the United States, which makes us jealous.”
Stewart A. Baker, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP who testified late Tuesday afternoon, suggested the lull in intelligence gathering as the White House reconsiders its operations posed great danger to the United States.
"We cannot afford to exempt countries that often see themselves as allies from the possibility of intelligence collection. Our interests often diverge from those of even generally friendly countries," he said. "Even allies can have bitter disputes, where every bit of information may be needed to ensure a favorable outcome."
"Other nations are taking advantage of the moment to demand concessions that the White House is already halfway to granting," he added. "If so, we will regret them as a country long after the embarrassment of fielding angry phone calls from national leaders has faded into a short passage in President Obama's memoirs."