US intelligence officials on Tuesday defended surveillance of other countries' leaders, saying such efforts are common practice across the world's intelligence agencies.
Surveillance efforts focused on learning the plans of other national leaders have long been part of US and other countries' spying efforts, James Clapper, US director of national intelligence, said in response to a lawmaker's question regarding press reports about US spying on the telephone conversations of other countries' leaders.
Without commenting on surveillance of specific leaders, Clapper said that targeting foreign leaders has been a "basic tenant" of many countries' intelligence efforts for the last 50 years. Foreign leaders criticizing the US efforts may be ignoring their own intelligence agencies' efforts, he told the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee.
"Is this something new and different that the intelligence community might try to target foreign leaders' intentions, to try to determine what the best policy might be for the United States?" asked Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the committee.
"It's one of the first things I learned in [intelligence] school in 1963," Clapper answered. "It's a fundamental given in the intelligence business."
Rogers asked if US allies were targeting the communications of US leaders. "Absolutely," Clapper said.
Clapper and General Keith Alexander, the US National Security Agency's director, also disputed press reports saying the agency was collecting the content of telephone calls and Internet communications of tens of millions of Europeans. Press reports suggesting those numbers were based on a misreading of a screenshot leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Alexander said.
In many cases, the numbers reported were based on collection done by other countries' intelligence agencies and shared with the NSA, Alexander said. The press reports saying the NSA was collecting the information were "completely false," he said.
Rogers complained about the press reports on the NSA's spying on other national leaders, saying it "certainly has created an international row" based on "very poor, inaccurate reporting."
Representative James Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked Clapper and Alexander about the impact of proposals to end the NSA's bulk telephone records collection in the US Earlier Tuesday, a group of more than 85 lawmakers introduced a bill that would end the telephone records program.
The end of the program would set back US intelligence to the levels of information available before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Alexander said. "If we take away that program, what you do is create a gap," he said. "What you're asking me is, is there a risk? The answer is yes. We know that risk because that's where we existed on 9/11."
It would be wrong to change the program because of a perception of civil liberties violations when the intelligence community hasn't "articulated the program well enough so people understand how we protect their privacy," Alexander said.
While Clapper, Alexander and other intelligence officials faced a largely friendly panel of lawmakers Tuesday, Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, suggested that Alexander was misreading the criticism of the surveillance programs. While Alexander stressed that NSA employees are "patriots," no one has suggested that they aren't, she said.
"People have questioned the policies of the NSA ... and they have been carried out by patriots," she said.
The NSA's surveillance of foreign leaders was kept from the congressional intelligence committees, Schakowsky said. US diplomatic relations have suffered because of those spying efforts, she added.
"There will be changes" to the NSA programs, she told Clapper and Alexander. "What I heard from you was a robust defense, effectively, of the status quo."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the US government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is [email protected]