By Tabassum Zakaria and Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - The U.S. National SecurityAgency director on Tuesday defended the spy agency as actingwithin legal boundaries, amid a public uproar which has grownfrom anger over the collection of Americans' phone and emailrecords to outrage over spying on European allies.
General Keith Alexander offered an impassioned defense ofthe beleaguered intelligence agency, telling the House ofRepresentatives Intelligence Committee that the NSA is focusedon preventing attacks on Americans and allies, and operatesunder strict oversight.
"It is much more important for this country that we defendthis nation and take the beatings than it is to give up aprogram that would result in this nation being attacked,"Alexander said, referring to criticism of his agency.
Under sympathetic questioning from the committee chairman,Representative Mike Rogers, Alexander called media reports inFrance, Spain and Italy that the NSA collected data on tens ofmillions of phone calls in those countries "completely false."
Some of the data referenced in documents leaked by formerNSA contractor Edward Snowden was collected not just by the NSAitself but was also "provided to NSA by foreign partners," hesaid. "This is not information that we collected on Europeancitizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allieshave collected in defense of our countries and in support ofmilitary operations."
Rogers warned that collecting foreign intelligence wasimportant to protecting Americans and allies from terrorism.
"Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is notunique to the United States," Rogers said in prepared openingremarks at the committee hearing. "What is unique to the UnitedStates is our level of oversight, our commitment to privacyprotections, and our checks and balances on intelligencecollection."
At the hearing, witnesses included Alexander, NSA DeputyDirector Chris Inglis, Director of National Intelligence JamesClapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Protesters in the hearing room held signs that said "stopspying on us" and yelled "lies, lies and more lies."
The intelligence chiefs are appearing against a backdrop ofangry European allies accusing the United States of spying ontheir leaders and citizens.
The most prominent target appears to have been GermanChancellor Angela Merkel. A German media report last week saidthe United States monitored her mobile phone. The White Housedid not deny the report, but has said no such surveillance istaking place now.
More than any previous disclosures from material given tojournalists by Snowden, the reports of spying on close U.S.allies have forced the White House to promise reforms and evenacknowledge that America's electronic surveillance may have gonetoo far.
Clapper told the hearing that one of the most fundamentalmissions of U.S. intelligence agencies is to understand foreignleaders' intentions. He spoke broadly and historically, and didnot refer to any specific leaders.
"Leadership intentions are an important dimension of thelandscape out there for all policymakers," he said.
The hearing took place amid growing debate over whether newlimitations should be placed on NSA activities, and as multiplereviews of agency programs are under way or being launched bythe White House and Congress.
The top Republican in Congress, House Speaker John Boehner,told reporters there should be a review of NSA spying on alliedleaders. He said the United States must balance its obligationsto allies with its responsibility to keep Americans safe.
Two lawmakers from different political parties introducedlegislation to end the government's "dragnet collection" ofinformation. The bill also calls for greater oversight,transparency and accountability for domestic surveillance.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and RepublicanRepresentative James Sensenbrenner, the primary authors of theUSA Patriot Act implemented after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, toimprove the government's ability to protect its citizens, nowwant to make sure information gathering does not go too far.
"No one underestimates the threat this country continues toface, and we can all agree that the intelligence communityshould be given necessary and appropriate tools to help keep ussafe," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee."But we should also agree that there must be reasonable limitson the surveillance powers we give to the government."
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the SenateIntelligence Committee , joined the ranks of critics on Monday,expressing outrage at American intelligence collection onallies, and pique that her committee was not informed.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leadersof U.S. allies - including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany-let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," saidFeinstein, who has been a staunch defender of some of the NSAprograms leaked by Snowden.
The White House is conducting a review of intelligenceprograms prompted by disclosures about top-secret spyingprograms to the media by Snowden, who is living in Russia, outof reach of U.S. attempts to arrest him.
The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a hearing inSeptember at which Feinstein said proposals included puttinglimits on the NSA's phone data program, prohibiting collectionof the content of phone calls, and legally requiring thatintelligence analysts have a "reasonable articulable suspicion"that a phone number was associated with terrorism in order toquery the database.
Rogers said some of the proposals being considered inCongress "would effectively gut the operational usefulness ofprograms that are necessary to protect America's nationalsecurity."
And he warned, "We cannot go back to a pre-9/11 mindset andrisk failing to 'connect the dots' again."
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