Carney: Obama has 'full confidence' in NSA director, staff
© Getty Images

The White House on Monday defended the National Security Agency (NSA) amid a firestorm of fresh criticism from world leaders over its surveillance efforts.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said that it was important to "remember the gathering occurs for a purpose" and that "the work that is being done here saves lives."

The White House spokesman added that both NSA Director Keith Alexander and the agency's "rank-and-file" had the president's "full confidence."

"If we're going to keep our citizens and our allies safe, we have to continue to stay ahead of these changes, and that's what our intelligence community has been doing extraordinarily well," Carney said. "These capabilities are part of the reason we've been able to foil numerous terrorist plots and adapt to a post-9/11 security environment."

The defense of the agency comes amid criticism from U.S. allies over reports that the intelligence community monitored the emails and phone calls of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The U.S. also allegedly culled information about tens of millions of phone calls between foreign citizens, stoking outrage overseas.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the White House was unaware of the surveillance on Merkel's phone until an internal administration review this summer.

Carney refused to comment directly on that report, saying he was "not going to get into details of internal discussions."

But the press secretary did acknowledge the "tensions these disclosures have caused" with allies.

He said that the president was serious about looking "at how we balance the need for security in this completely transformed world that we live in because of the technology advances that have occurred" against "the clear and real privacy concerns that Americans and people around the world share."

Carney also said administration officials from the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security staff would meet this week with a group of visiting European Union parliamentarians investigating American intelligence activities.

The White House also looked to soothe concerns that the U.S. monitoring could be to gain an economic edge. On Monday, former Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN American intelligence capabilities was "enormously important to the United States, to our conduct in foreign policy, to defense matters, economic matters."

"We do not use our intelligence capabilities for that purpose," Carney said. "We use it for security purposes."