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House committee questions spy chiefs about phone tapping allegations

POOl/CNN
Tuesday, October 29, 2013 - 2:08pm

The House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon is questioning U.S. spy chiefs about accusations that the National Security Agency has tapped not only the phone calls of millions of Americans, but those of top U.S. allies.

Tuesday's hearing, billed as a discussion of potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, comes amid claims, reported last week by German magazine Der Spiegel, that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.

It's the latest in a series of spying allegations that stem from disclosures given to news organizations by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who describes himself as a whistle-blower. Comments by President Barack Obama's administration claiming that he did not know of the practice until recently have drawn criticism from both the right and the left.

Here are the latest highlights from the hearing:

-- Recent assertions by European media outlets that the NSA tapped tens of millions of phone calls in Europe are "completely false," NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander told the committee.

Alexander said that the media outlets misinterpreted documents that were leaked. He said the NSA legally collected metadata from some phone calls, and the rest of the metadata came from U.S. allies.

"To be perfectly clear, 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," Alexander said.

Previously reported:

-- Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that trying to determine the intentions of foreign leaders -- by getting close to them or getting their communications -- is a "fundamental given" in the world of intelligence services, and one of the first things he learned in his intelligence career. Asked if he believes U.S. allies conducted espionage activities against U.S. leaders, he said, "absolutely." Clapper was responding to questions that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers asked him during the hearing.

-- Alexander vigorously defended the agency's intelligence gathering activities, saying it has saved lives "not only here but in Europe and around the world."

Nothing that's been revealed about the programs "has shown that we were trying to do something illegal and unprofessional"; that if something was collected improperly, it was corrected; and that safeguards on the data collected are effective, he said.

-- The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, "must be reformed" to improve transparency about and restore the public's confidence in the United States' intelligence gathering activities, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Maryland, said. Yet, the reforms must preserve the intelligence community's abilities to help protect the nation, he added.

-- Recent leaks about U.S. intelligence gathering activities have been "extremely damaging," Clapper said in his opening remarks. He said the intelligence community's activities have been lawful, and that "rigorous oversight" has been effective. Still, he said, he is ready to work with lawmakers to "further protect our privacy and civil liberties."

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