Intel chief: US spies on allies, they do it, too

WASHINGTON – Facing lawmakers who suggested U.S. surveillance has gone too far, the national intelligence director on Tuesday defended spying on foreign allies as necessary and said such scrutiny of America’s friends – and vice versa – is commonplace.

Another top intelligence official said the collection of phone records that prompted outrage across the Atlantic actually was conducted with the help of European governments. News reports that the National Security Agency had swept up millions of phone records in France, Spain and elsewhere were inaccurate and reflected a misunderstanding of “metadata” that was in fact collected by NATO allies and shared with the United States, the director of the NSA told a congressional hearing.

The nation’s post-Sept. 11 surveillance programs are coming under increased criticism at home and abroad, capped by recent revelations that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and those of up to 34 other world leaders. Those reports relied on documents provided by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden.

Congressional leaders who have been staunch supporters of the NSA programs are now saying it is time for a close examination. The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama had ordered a full review of the programs and was considering changes.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper defended the secret surveillance that sweeps up phone records and emails of millions of Americans as vital to protecting against terrorists.

He played down European allies’ complaints about spying on their leaders, saying the allies do it, too.

“That’s a hardy perennial,” Clapper told a House intelligence committee hearing.

He said during his 50 years working in intelligence it was “a basic tenet” to collect, whether by spying on communications or through other sources, confidential information about foreign leaders that reveals “if what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on.”

Committee Chairman Mike Rogers asked whether allies had conducted the same type of espionage against U.S. leaders. “Absolutely,” Clapper responded.