Security chiefs seek to soothe outrage over NSA surveillance

Top national security officials insisted to lawmakers on Tuesday that U.S. surveillance is already subject to strict oversight and that analysts are careful to protect privacy.

In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, the head of the National Security Agency and President Obama’s director of national intelligence sought to calm both international leaders and members of Congress outraged over reports of U.S. spying. 

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"What we don't do is to spy unlawfully on Americans — or for that matter spy indiscriminately on citizens of any country," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said.

The hearing of the House Intelligence Committee came with the NSA becoming increasingly isolated and with lawmakers drawing up plans for curbing the agency's surveillance power. 

During the hearing, Clapper and NSA Director Keith Alexander argued there’s already strong oversight.

Alexander testified that reports based on leaks by Edward Snowden saying the NSA spied on millions of phone calls in Europe are "completely false."

”This is not information we collected on European citizens,” Alexander said. "It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that intelligence agencies in France and Spain provided the NSA with the European phone call data.

But the intelligence officials were more elusive when asked about reports that the NSA has spied on leaders of allied nations. 

The leaks indicating that the NSA spied on phone calls of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have prompted an international outcry.

Merkel told Obama in a phone call last week that such breaches of privacy are “completely unacceptable.”

Even Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), typically a staunch supporter of the NSA, has expressed outrage over the reports of spying on foreign leaders. She said her panel will conduct a "total review." 

At Tuesday's hearing, the intelligence officials declined to discuss specific surveillance operations, but Clapper said that trying to determine the "leadership intentions" of foreign nations has long been a core objective of intelligence agencies. 

"It's one of the first things I learned in intel school in 1963," Clapper said. He added that allies are "absolutely" trying to spy on U.S. leaders. 

It remains unclear how much President Obama knew of the surveillance of allied leaders and when he knew it.

Clapper said the White House is aware of the parameters of surveillance operations and that the agencies inform the president of important intelligence details that they collect. But he said the NSA does not always inform the White House of individual targets.  

Lawmakers clashed over whether the intelligence officials had informed the committee of the surveillance of foreign leaders.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) scolded the officials for hiding such a critical policy decision, but Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) argued that the committee already has extensive access to details of the surveillance programs. 

"I would argue that to make the case that we are somehow in the dark is mystifying," Rogers said, while declining to confirm any specific intelligence activities. 

Rogers, one of the most vocal defenders of the NSA on Capitol Hill, is preparing a bill that would increase transparency and oversight but ratify the core of the NSA's spying powers. Feinstein is moving similar legislation through the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But the NSA's defenders are heading towards a showdown with critics, who introduced their own bill Tuesday to dramatically curb the agency's power.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the original author of the USA Patriot Act, introduced the USA Freedom Act Tuesday to end the NSA's bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

The program, which gives the NSA access to phone numbers, call times and call durations on all U.S. phone calls, is one of the most controversial revelations from the leaks by Edward Snowden.

The bipartisan bill already has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 70 in the House. 

In a statement, Sensenbrenner said the Patriot Act has helped keep Americans safe, but that "somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost." 

"It’s 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," he said. 

In a lightly veiled shot at Feinstein and Rogers, Leahy argued, "modest transparency and oversight provisions are not enough."

A Leahy aide said the Senate Judiciary Committee is planning a hearing on the legislation.

Although Feinstein is launching an investigation of the NSA's spying on foreign leaders, she is still a vocal supporter of its bulk collection of U.S. phone records.

"The database program is public information, just a phone number and the time of the call,” Feinstein told The Hill Tuesday. “And it’s under court supervision. It’s been reviewed extensively by us."

Jeremy Herb and Carlo Munoz contributed.