The US National Security Agency director has defended the spy agency as acting within legal boundaries, amid a public uproar over the collection of Americans' phone and email records to outrage over spying on European allies.
General Keith Alexander offered an impassioned defense of the beleaguered intelligence agency, telling the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that the NSA is focused on preventing attacks on Americans and allies, and operates under strict oversight.
“It is much more important for this country that we defend this nation and take the beatings than it is to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked,” Gen Alexander said, referring to criticism of his agency.
Under sympathetic questioning from the committee chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, Gen Alexander called media reports in France, Spain and Italy that the NSA collected data on tens of millions of phone calls in those countries "completely false."
Some of the data referenced in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was collected not just by the NSA itself but was also "provided to NSA by foreign partners," he said.
“This is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
Mr Rogers warned that collecting foreign intelligence was important to protecting Americans and allies from terrorism. "Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is not unique to the United States, " Mr Rogers said in prepared opening remarks at the committee hearing.
“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.”
At the hearing, witnesses included Alexander, NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Protesters in the hearing room held signs that said “stop spying on us” and yelled “lies, lies and more lies.” The intelligence chiefs are appearing against a backdrop of angry European allies accusing the United States of spying on their leaders and citizens.
Mr Clapper told the hearing that one of the most fundamental missions of US intelligence agencies is to understand foreign leaders’ intentions. He spoke broadly and historically, and did not refer to any specific leaders.
“Leadership intentions are an important dimension of the landscape out there for all policymakers,” he said.
“To be sure, on occasion we have made mistakes,” he also said.
The hearing took place amid growing debate over whether new limitations should be placed on NSA activities, and as multiple reviews of agency programs are under way or being launched by the White House and Congress.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined the ranks of critics yesterday, expressing outrage at American intelligence collection on allies, and pique that her committee was not informed. “With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies - including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” said Ms Feinstein, who has been a staunch defender of some of the NSA programs leaked by Mr Snowden.