The director of U.S. national intelligence told Congress on October 29 that spying on foreign leaders is commonplace and has long been a part of not only U.S. surveillance operations, but those conducted by other nations.
"That’s a hardy perennial," National Intelligence Director James Clapper told lawmakers. "As long as I’ve been in the intelligence business – 50 years – [foreign] leadership intentions, in whatever form that’s expressed, is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyze."
But Clapper stopped short of confirming reports of eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He did say that allies, including in the European Union, have "absolutely" spied on the United States.
Clapper and National Security Agency (NSA) Director Keith Alexander appeared before the House Intelligence Committee against the backdrop of angry European allies who have recently learned that U.S. intelligence agencies have been listening in on their phone calls.
The revelations came from documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden now living in exile in Russia.
Alexander told lawmakers that reports that the United States has conducted mass spying on European citizens are not true.
“The assertions by reporters in France [at] "LeMonde," Spain [at] "El Mundo," and Italy [at] "L’Espresso," that [the] NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls [by European citizens] are completely false," Alexander claimed.
Both men defended U.S. intelligence gathering practices as necessary to keep the country safe.
Alexander said the fact that there hasn’t been a terrorist attack with mass casualties in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks wasn’t simply a matter of luck.
The hearing took place amid growing public concerns that the country’s intelligence agencies are abusing their surveillance powers. The "New York Times," citing administration and congressional sources, said President Barack Obama is considering whether to order the NSA to stop all eavesdropping on the leaders of America’s allies.
The testifying intelligence officials found a strong ally in committee chair Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) and Frank LoBiondo (R-New Jersey).
“I think far too many people in America, for them September 11, , is a very distant memory. You said, General Alexander, that the fact that we haven’t had an attack with mass casualties is not an accident. I don’t think enough people understand that,” LoBiondo said.
But other members of the committee were clearly frustrated that they had not been told that U.S. intelligence officials were spying on foreign allies.
“Why did we not know that heads of state were being eavesdropped on, spied on?" asked Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois). "The reason why it’s important is because it’s a policy issue that has very broad implications. It could put the United States in a difficult position."
Representative Adam Schiff said the spy services had a legal obligation to inform the intelligence committees in Congress of "significant" activities.
And he questioned Clapper’s defense that sharing information with Congress meant the information could be compromised.
“I find it very hard to understand why, if this information was deemed too sensitive to be shared with the intelligence committee, it was not so sensitive that it wasn’t accessible to a low-level systems analyst like Mr. [Edward] Snowden. That makes no sense to me whatsoever,” Schiff said.
The hearing was interrupted at the beginning by a few protesters who were sitting in the audience. One man was ejected, and as he left, said loudly, "Stop spying on us."
With reporting by AP, Reuters and RFE/RL