By Tabassum Zakaria and Deborah Charles
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Top U.S. intelligenceofficials appeared at a congressional hearing on Tuesday amid apublic uproar that has expanded from anger over the NationalSecurity Agency collecting the phone and email records ofAmericans to spying on European allies.
But the Republican chairman of the House of RepresentativesIntelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, warned that collectingforeign intelligence was important to protecting Americans andallies from terrorism.
"Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is notunique to the United States," he said in opening remarks at thecommittee's hearing. "What is unique to the United States is ourlevel of oversight, our commitment to privacy protections, andour checks and balances on intelligence collection."
At the hearing, lawmakers will have a chance to question NSADirector General Keith Alexander, NSA Deputy Director ChrisInglis, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper andDeputy Attorney General James Cole.
They are appearing against a backdrop of angry Europeanallies accusing the United States of spying on their leaders andcitizens.
The most prominent target appears to have been GermanChancellor Angela Merkel, whose government said last week it hadlearned the United States may have monitored her mobile phone.
More than any previous disclosures from material given tojournalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the reportsof spying on close U.S. allies have forced the White House topromise reforms and even acknowledge that America's electronicsurveillance may have gone too far.
"We recognize there need to be additional constraints on howwe gather and use intelligence," White House spokesman JayCarney said on Monday.
Congress' top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, toldreporters 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 U.S. 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 Senate'sintelligence 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 testimony of the spy chiefs will cover NSA programs andpotential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,which regulates electronic eavesdropping.
The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a similarhearing in September at which Feinstein said proposals includedputting limits on the NSA's phone metadata program, prohibitingcollection of the content of phone calls, and legally requiringthat intelligence analysts have a "reasonable articulablesuspicion" that a phone number was associated with terrorism inorder to query 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."
The allegations of U.S. spying on Merkel and other leadersare likely to have a lasting impact on relations, said HeatherConley, director of the Europe Program at the Center forStrategic and International Studies.
In the last several years, Europeans have been disappointedwith the Obama administration over its failure to close the U.S.detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and its use of dronestrikes to kill terrorism suspects. The spectacle of the recentfederal government shutdown also dented U.S. prestige in Europe.
"It's just raising really big doubts, uncertainties andquestion marks about not only the president's leadership butwhether the United States is a reliable ally," said Conley, aformer deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe.
- Politics & Government
- United States
- Senator Dianne Feinstein