By Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The political uproar overalleged U.S. eavesdropping on close European allies has producedan unusual defense from the National Security Agency: NSA saysit was the Europeans themselves who did the spying, and thenhanded data to the Americans.
It is rare for intelligence officials to speak in any publicdetail about liaison arrangements with foreign spy agenciesbecause such relationships are so sensitive. Even more unusualis for the United States to point fingers at partners.
But that is what NSA Director General Keith Alexander did ata public congressional hearing on Tuesday when, attempting tocounter international complaints about the agency's allegedexcesses, he said its sources for foreign telecommunicationsinformation included "data provided to NSA by foreign partners."
Alexander's disclosure marked yet another milestone in NSA'semergence from the shadows to defend its electronic surveillancemission in the wake of damaging revelations by former agencycontractor Edward Snowden.
"It is true that in general we stay close-mouthed aboutintelligence liaison relationships and we only speak in the mostgeneral terms about sharing things with our friends and allies,"said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst.
But, he said, there was nothing wrong in correctinginformation that was out in public, even though Alexanderprobably "created or exacerbated some political problems" for anumber of European allies with his comments.
"Given the hypocrisy being exhibited by the Europeans insaying they are 'shocked, shocked' that these sorts of things goon - allies spying on allies - I don't think we should feel muchcompunction about having them feel a little bit of domesticpolitical heat if that is necessary to set the story straight inone of our own congressional hearings," Pillar said.
One U.S. official said that before going public with therevelation that telecommunications metadata was collected andsupplied to the United States by foreign governments like Franceand Spain, the Obama administration consulted with thegovernments concerned. The official spoke on condition ofanonymity.
Metadata refers to information about a phone call or email -the length of a call and the number dialed, for example - thatdoes not include the communication's actual content.
A second U.S. official said that, regardless of foreigngovernments' reactions, some Obama administration officialswanted to make the information public anyway because they weredisappointed at how allies were willing to let Washington takethe heat for surveillance activities in which they themselveswere partners.
Since early June, the NSA has been forced to defend itseavesdropping operations in public after Snowden leakedinformation about top-secret spy programs that collect phone,email and social media records, including those generated byAmericans, to writers and media outlets, including Britain'sGuardian and the Washington Post.
The NSA continues battling the perception its programs are large and intrusive. The Post reported on Wednesday that theagency has tapped directly into communications links used byGoogle and Yahoo to move huge amounts of emailand other user information among overseas data centers.
Reports that the United States was eavesdropping on thephone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and spying on theleaders and citizens of some of its closest European allies -Germany, France, and Spain - drew harsh criticism across Europe.
Mike McConnell, a former NSA director, said at a BloombergGovernment conference on Wednesday that Merkel should not havebeen surprised about alleged U.S. eavesdropping on her cellphonebecause world leaders are prime targets for such spying.
"The number one target on the globe is the president of theUnited States. By everyone," he said. "All nation states dothis."
Pillar said this cuts both ways: during the recent U.S.government shutdown, European allies were probably scrambling toget as much intelligence as possible about the state of play inWashington, he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the SenateIntelligence Committee, said this week that the White House hadinformed her intelligence collection on U.S. allies "will notcontinue."
But it is unclear whether that represents a blanket ban.
The NSA uproar prompted delegations from the European Unionand Germany to descend on Washington demanding answers.
After meetings in Washington, a delegation of EuropeanParliament members expressed dismay that U.S. officials hadprovided "no satisfactory reply" to questions regarding theallegations that the NSA had eavesdropped on Merkel's phonecalls and those of leaders of unnamed countries friendly to theUnited States.
In a communiqué, the delegation also said it had received noclarification as to what the White House knew about this allegedNSA eavesdropping.
The delegation warned that if the U.S. response to Europeanconcerns about surveillance proved too feeble, that couldfurther damage commercial, diplomatic and legal relations.
On Wednesday U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice helda meeting at the White House with her German counterpart in aneffort to ease the transatlantic tensions.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and NSADeputy Director Chris Inglis also participated, Americanofficials said.
European media have pointed to an NSA slide published byFrance's Le Monde newspaper as showing that the United Stateswas collecting bulk telephone data on millions of Europeancitizens. But U.S. officials say that slide was misinterpreted.
A U.S. national security official said that the slideactually referred to a program under which French authoritiessupplied to U.S. intelligence agencies large amounts of rawtelephone call data.
That data related to communications transmitted outsideFrance but that passed through telecoms systems or switches towhich France had direct, or at least readier, access than NSAitself.
The official indicated that this same scenario applied toallegations regarding the NSA collection of large amounts ofmetadata in Spain.
Another U.S. official familiar with NSA programs said that the metadata collection was inaccurately characterized in Frenchand Spanish media reports.
It was collected by those governments themselves and turnedover to the United States, and the collection was conducted ontargets outside of their countries in war zones or countriesthat are major targets for Western counter-terrorism operations,the official said.
Some of that information, one U.S. official said, helped ininvestigating at least three counter-terrorism cases in whichleads emerged that proved to be productive.
There is "nothing scandalous" about such cooperative jointcollection, the official insisted.
- Politics & Government
- United States
- National Security Agency