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The head of the National Security Agency defended the intelligence agency as acting within legal boundaries Tuesday, as he sought to defuse growing controversies over the U.S. spying on its European allies and the collection of U.S. phone and email records.
General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, offered an impassioned defense of the intelligence agency, telling the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that it is focused on preventing attacks on Americans and its allies and operates under strict oversight.
"It is much more important for this country that we defend this nation and take the beatings than it is to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked," Alexander said.
Under sympathetic questioning from the committee chairman, Representative Mike Rogers, Alexander called media reports in Europe alleging that the NSA collected data on tens of millions of phone calls in France, Spain and Italy "completely false."
Some of the data referenced in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was collected not just by the NSA itself but was also "provided to NSA by foreign partners," he said. "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."
Rogers warned that collecting foreign intelligence was important to protecting Americans and allies from terrorism.
"Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is not unique to the United States," Rogers said in prepared opening remarks at the committee hearing. "What is unique to the United States is our level of oversight, our commitment to privacy protections and our checks and balances on intelligence collection."
At the hearing, witnesses included Alexander, NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.
Protesters in the hearing room held signs that said "stop spying on us" and yelled "lies, lies and more lies."
The intelligence chiefs appeared against a backdrop of angry accusations by European allies that the United States spies on their leaders and citizens.
The loudest protests have come from Germany over reports of U.S. monitoring of Chancellor Angela Merkel's communications. A German media report last week said the United States monitored her cellphone. The White House did not deny the report but has said no such surveillance is taking place now.
Leading newspapers in France and Spain recently cited documents provided by Snowden that showed that the NSA had collected massive quantities of phone records in those countries.
Paris lodged a protest with the U.S. soon after Le Monde published allegations based on information in the documents that the NSA had collected more than 70 million French phone records between December 2012 and early January 2013.
Spain's El Mundo newspaper said that the documents showed that the NSA intercepted 60.5 million phone calls in Spain during the same time period.
In response to the media reports, Clapper rebutted the allegations Monday in a statement posted online and said that the French report contained "inaccurate and misleading information," adding that claims that the NSA collected more than 70 million recordings of French citizens' telephone data was "false."
"The United States values our longstanding friendship and alliance with France, and we will continue to cooperate on security and intelligence matters going forward," the statement read.
A European Parliament delegation arrived in Washington Monday to discuss the massive surveillance of European citizens and governments with U.S. lawmakers and to seek assurances that the surveillance would cease.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, joined the ranks of critics on Monday, expressing outrage at American intelligence collection on allies and that her committee was not informed. Feinstein has been a staunch defender of some of the NSA programs leaked by Snowden.
"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," said Feinstein.
U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal Tuesday that NSA officials are in a tough position — while wanting to correct misrepresentations in the media, doing so would expose allies' participation in intelligence operations and possibly spark public outrage in these countries against their own leaders.
Unnamed officials told the newspaper that it was actually French and Spanish intelligence agencies that had collected their citizens’ phone records and shared them with the NSA.
Tuesday's hearing took place as multiple reviews of agency programs are under way or being launched by the White House and Congress.
Two lawmakers Tuesday introduced legislation to end the government's "dragnet collection" of information. Backed by dozens of lawmakers from both parties, the USA Freedom Act calls for greater oversight, transparency and accountability in regards to domestic surveillance.
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner — the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act passed after the September 11, 2001 attacks, which expanded the government's ability to gather intelligence data — now want to prevent the government abusing its powers to gather information.
Sensenbrenner said in a statement that while the Patriot Act has helped keep Americans safe, that "somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost."
"It’s now time for the Judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected," he said.
The legislation includes provisions that would eliminate the bulk phone record collection, provide businesses the ability to release information regarding NSA requests, and restrict "reverse targeting" of Americans which involves targeting a foreigner with the goal of obtaining information involving an American.
It would also create an Office of the Special Advocate tasked with promoting privacy interests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Currrently the secret court only hears arguments from government attorneys in favor of surveillance.
Civil liberties groups applauded the move and in a statement posted online, the American Civil Liberties Union said, "Although the USA Freedom Act does not fix every problem with the government's surveillance authorities and programs, it is an important first step and it deserves broad support."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that the Crimea region of Ukraine might already be lost to Russian control