Pressure was mounting on the White House yesterday to put a clear stop to the monitoring of leaders of friendly foreign countries by the National Security Agency (NSA) and accelerate efforts to implement broader reforms to reign in the country's intelligence-gathering arm.
The apparent failure of the intelligence community even to fully disclose to President Barack Obama the extent of its activities and the degree to which it has evaded proper oversight by Congress came to the fore at closely watched and sometimes hostile hearings of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill.
Democrat lawmakers on the intelligence panel in particular pressed James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, and General Keith Alexander, the Director of the NSA, for answers as Washington grapples with a growing anger from its foreign allies, notably Germany which is smarting from revelations that the US secretly tapped into the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel beginning in 2002.
Yet, in a startling reversal of one part of the narrative that has developed in recent days, US officials have rejected reports that the NSA had been engaged in sweeping up data on millions of phone calls made in France and Spain, asserting rather that those countries' own domestic intelligence agencies had been gathering the information – in war zones and areas outside their borders – and then sharing it with the NSA.
In his testimony last night, Gen Alexander called "absolutely false" media reports about the collection of phone 'metadata' – meaning items like numbers dialled, locations calls are made from and duration of calls – in France, Germany and Spain. He also asserted that foreign allies regularly conducted espionage operations on American government interests and leaders.
Republicans on the panel, including Republican chairman Mike Rogers, attempted to temper anger at the NSA and cautioned against legislation that might hobble its ability to keep Americans safe. "We can't ask the FBI to find terrorists plotting an attack and then not provide them with the information they need," he said, adding: "This is the time for leadership, it is not a time to apologise."
Already circulating on Capitol Hill is a sweeping intelligence-gathering reform bill drafted jointly by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Democrat chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner.
It was initially triggered by revelations during the summer that the NSA was sweeping up data on millions of phone communications made domestically by American citizens.
Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, abandoned her usual stance of defending the NSA in a statement on Monday. "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," Ms Feinstein said, adding that America should not be "collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers".
She called for a "total review of all intelligence programmes".
Officials have said that Mr Obama only became aware of the tapping of Ms Merkel's phone this summer and ordered it stopped.
Gen Alexander, meanwhile, seemed to back the White House, saying it knew the general sweep of what the NSA did but not everything in detail.
"They can and do (know)," he said, "but I have to say that that does not necessarily extend down to the level of detail." (© Independent News Service)