(NBC NEWS) -- The nation's top intelligence official told Congress on Tuesday that
the U.S. has been snooping on friendly foreign leaders for years, and
getting spied on by allies in return.
As controversy swirled over
reports that the National Security Agency monitored the calls of German
Chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders, Director of National
Intelligence James Clapper gave the impression he didn't know what all
the fuss was about.
During a grilling by the House Intelligence
Committee, Clapper said understanding "foreign leadership intentions" is
one of NSA's basic goals.
"That's a hardy perennial as long as I
have been in the intelligence business," he said, explaining that the
U.S. needs to make sure what allies are telling America matches what's
going on behind the scenes.
Asked whether allies also spy on the U.S., Clapper was unequivocal: "Absolutely."
suggested the outrage and surprise expressed by representatives of
allies in recent days was naive or disingenuous and reminded him of a
line from the movie "Casablanca."
"'My God, there's gambling going on here?' It's the same kind of thing," he said.
Obama reportedly had to apologize to Merkel and to the presidents of
France and Brazil after revelations about U.S. spying - disclosures that
stem from former NSA and CIA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks of
As the White House tries to control the
damage, Obama has promised a "complete review" of overseas spying
operations and is reportedly considering whether to suspend monitoring
"What we've seen over the last several years is their
capacities continue to develop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating
now a review to make sure that what they're able to do doesn't
necessarily mean what they should be doing," Obama said Monday in a
NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander said
overseas reports that the U.S. had collected tens of millions of phone
calls in France, Spain and other European nations were "false."
said the data cited came from foreign service agencies - "collected in
defense of our countries and in support of military operations" - and
was not culled from European citizens.
Clapper and Alexander
appeared before the committee hours after a bipartisan team of Congress
members introduced a bill that would sharply curb the NSA's collection
of American's phone data, legislation that is expected to face a fight
from others who think it goes too far.
Several protesters wearing
clown-size sunglasses with the words "Stop Spying" scrawled on the
lenses sat behind the two spy bosses.
Both defended the data-sweeping program as lawful, aimed at foreign terrorists and successful in saving lives.
Clapper said he would support declassifying secret intelligence court
orders to boost transparency and pointed to plans to hire a director of
civil liberties and privacy. Alexander said an independent
Senate-confirmed inspector general, one of the proposals the committee
is considering, "won't hurt."
But Clapper also warned those looking to reform the NSA's activities that they must avoid "over-correcting."
believe we have been lawful and that the rigorous oversight we've
operated under has been effective," Clapper said in his opening remarks.
"We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes and we do not violate the law."
conceded "we have made mistakes," blaming them on human error or
technical problems and said there has been an "erosion of trust in the
in the intelligence community."
But he urged the lawmakers to be cautious in responding to the errors.
Americans, we face an unending array of threats to our way of life. We
need to sustain our ability to detect these threats," he said.
Months of leaks from Snowden are already "affecting our ability to conduct intelligence and keep our country safe," he said.
Alexander struck a similar note in his testimony.
is much more important for this county that we defend this country and
take the beating than it for us to give up a program that would prevent
this nation from being attacked," he said.
Before the two testified, Rep. Charles Ruppersberger, D-Md., said
more transparency and oversight of NSA activities may be needed but said
the data collection is crucial to uncovering terrorist plots.
"I shudder to think what connections would be missed if the program were eliminated," he said.
move to significantly alter the program is already under way in the
form of a bill that would essentially end the bulk collection of
Americans' phone records under the Patriot Act.
spearheading the legislation is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., the
main author of the Patriot Act, who said that while it has protected
Americans since 9/11, it has also been abused.
"Somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost," he said in a statement.
now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a
bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past
abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected.
Washington must regain Americans' trust in their government."
USA Freedom Act would require proof that phone data sought is relevant
to an authorized investigation into international terrorism or
clandestine intelligence activities - and there is a link to a foreign
power or agent. The government would also need court orders to search
the communications of Americans collected during foreign intelligence
A similar measure failed in the House in July.
By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News