WASHINGTON — “I think you’ll find some amazing things, stay tuned,” said Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, to WND during an early break in the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday.
When WND asked him what kind of things, he replied, “Don’t believe everything you read in the media.”
Alexander appeared before the committee with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, following revelations in recent days that the NSA has been spying on the leaders of 35 foreign countries, including close allies such as Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Mexico.
‘There will be changes’
But it may have been the general who was in for a surprise, when Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., took him to task for the damage she said the NSA spying revelations have done to U.S. relations with allies.
The congresswoman was adamant in insisting there had been a diminishing of relations with allies, and “this is just a fact.”
Her voice rising, Schakowsky demanded to know, “Why did we not not know that heads of state were being eavesdropped on, being spied on?”
She admonished the general, “What I heard from you was a defense of the status quo.”
But, she assured him, “There will be changes.”
‘Is it worth the risk?’
Later in the hearing, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., complained that the spy chiefs should have told the committee intelligence information was coming from eavesdropping on foreign leaders.
He said it was important that committee members know because it is up to elected representatives to make the policy decisions as to “whether it is worth the risk” to America’s reputation to spy on the leaders of friendly countries.
Clapper replied it is part of his agency’s calculations that they expect what they do to remain secret.
But Schiff wanted to know why the NSA considered that information “too sensitive” to share with the committee but not too sensitive to share with a “low-level analyst” like Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who revealed widespread NSA spying on Americans, as well as foreign citizens.
Committee chair Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich, then interjected and appeared to admonish Schiff that the information he was seeking was actually available to committee members, even if it took searching through mounds of material provided by the NSA.
Rogers even cautioned committee members to review materials before lobbing questions.
But another Democrat later pointed out that even Senate Intelligence Committee chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was upset that her committee had not been told of U.S. spying on foreign leaders.
Schiff then told Rogers he believed the reason he and other committee members were not aware of NSA spying on allies was “not for lack of doing homework.”
During brief opening remarks before lawmakers adjourned to cast votes, Clapper promised to declassify more espionage documents, because, he said, the need to restore the public trust in his spy agency outweighs security issues.
Clapper insisted the NSA does not spy on anyone without a valid purpose and always does so within the confines of the law.
He said his agency has made mistakes, “but usually by accident.”
The stated purpose of the House Intelligence Committee hearing Tuesday was to discuss “potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to increase transparency and rebuild Americans’ confidence in the programs.”
Trust may be hard to restore after the main witness previously failed to tell the truth to the Senate Intelligence Committee under oath, just a few months ago.
On March 12, when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” he replied, “No, Sir … not wittingly.”
Snowden’s leaks to the media in May proved Clapper’s statement was not true.
Trust may also be difficult to restore after Feinstein on Monday called it a “big problem” that President Obama claimed to not know the U.S. government has been spying on close allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, since 2002.
Feinstein also released a scathing statement saying she was “totally opposed” to spying on close allies and appeared upset her committee had not been informed of the practice.
“[A]s far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs,” said Feinstein.
The senator’s committee has approved extensive and intrusive NSA spying programs in the past, including electronic eavesdropping that requires the approval of a FISA judge.
However, “[U]nlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order,” she said Monday, “it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed. Therefore our oversight needs to be strengthened and increased.”
When Alexander told WND “amazing things” would be revealed, he appeared to be referring to his strong denial that his agency collected the phone records of millions of Europeans.
The general said reports the NSA was listening to tens of millions of phone calls made by those citizens were “completely false.”
French, Spanish and Italian newspapers based those reports on documents provided by Snowden.
Alexander insisted reporters looking at a screenshot provided by Snowden simply “did not understand what they were looking at.”
Alexander said the picture showed metadata, not actual phone-call transcripts.
The general added, not only was that metadata collected legally, it was not collected by the NSA.
“This is not information that we collected on European citizens,” said Alexander.
“It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
European media have reported the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records, and intercepted 60 million calls in Spain, over the period of one month, late last year and early this year.
Rogers called those revelations “poor reporting.”
In the last few days, a series of leaks have caused more of the NSA’s most closely kept secrets to unravel.
After it became known the U.S. was spying on close allies in Europe and Latin America, the German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that the surveillance of Merkel’s phone began as long ago as 2002, three years before her election as chancellor.
The paper also reported that U.S. intelligence operates 80 listening posts worldwide, including 19 in European cities, and targeted Merkel’s phone from 2002 to 2013.
Merkel telephoned Obama Wednesday to express her anger at reports that her phone had been tapped until June.
Over the weekend, the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag reported Obama personally approved the bugging of Merkel’s phone three years ago, after he was briefed on the operation by NSA Director Alexander in 2010.
The NSA denied that report Sunday.
That same day, the Wall Street Journal reported the wiretapping of about 35 foreign leaders was disclosed to the White House as part of a review of surveillance programs ordered by Obama after NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA’s massive spying program to the media in May.
The Journal reported someone at the White House ordered a halt to eavesdropping on some, but not all, foreign leaders after learning of it this summer.
The White House is trying to prevent a world-class diplomatic crisis over espionage directed at allies, and deflect its anger directed at America.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said a report on NSA spying is due by the end of the year, but leaders in other countries are demanding immediate changes to U.S. surveillance policies.
Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and Mexico have all complained about the U.S. spying on them.
A German delegation, including top representatives of their own spy agency, is due to arrive in the next few days to meet their counterparts. The Germans will be demanding to know the extent of NSA spying in their country, and the purpose for it.
A week ago, the French government summoned the U.S. ambassador in Paris, urgently demanding an explanation to reports of widespread NSA spying on the phone and Internet communications of French citizens.
The French daily Le Monde published details from Snowden suggesting the spying on the French was on “a massive scale,” including more that 70 million phone calls in a 30-day period last year.
Foreign diplomats are bristling at White House suggestions that its practices are the same as those of “all nations.”
Sources tell the Guardian, that “while the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France are well-known to engage in aggressive cyber espionage, including against allies, many other countries do not have anywhere near the same surveillance infrastructure – and concentrate their more limited resources on counter-terrorism and serious crime.”
Spy vs. spy
Legislation to reform the NSA is pending in both houses of Congress this week, but it focuses almost entirely upon the government’s spying on U.S. citizens.
Members of Congress do not appear nearly as upset over the spying revelations as are America’s allies.
Rogers told CNN that mutual surveillance served the “legitimate protection of nation-state interest.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism and intelligence, said “the president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive.”
He added that the NSA had “saved thousands of lives, not just in the United States” but also throughout Europe, and noted Germany was “where the Hamburg plot began, which led to 9/11.”
Outgoing NSA chief Alexander was almost contemptuous, asking, “Would I stop doing any of that?” in an interview with a Department of Defense blog, adding, “[N]obody would ever want us to stop protecting this country against terrorists, against adversary states, against cyber (threats).”
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth