Top US intelligence officials appeared at a congressional hearing amid a public uproar that has expanded from anger over the National Security Agency collecting the phone and email records of Americans to spying on European allies.
But the Republican chairman of the house of representatives intelligence committee, Mike 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,” he said in opening remarks at the committee’s 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, lawmakers will have a chance to question NSA director general Keith Alexander, NSA deputy director Chris Inglis, director of National Intelligence James Clapper and deputy attorney general James Cole.
They are appearing against a backdrop of angry European allies accusing the United States of spying on their leaders and citizens.
The most prominent target appears to have been German ChancellorAngela Merkel, whose government said last week it had learned the United States may have monitored her mobile phone.
More than any previous disclosures from material given to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the reports of spying on close US allies have forced the White House to promise reforms and even acknowledge thatAmerica’s electronic surveillance may have gone too far.
“We recognize there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.
Congress’ top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, told reporters there should be a review of NSA spying on allied leaders. He said the United States must balance its obligations to allies with its responsibility to keep Americans safe.
Two lawmakers from different political parties introduced legislation to end the government’s “dragnet collection” of information. The bill also calls for greater oversight, transparency and accountability for domestic surveillance.
Democratic US senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act implemented after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve the government’s ability to protect its citizens, now want to make sure information gathering does not go too far.
“No one underestimates the threat this country continues to face, and we can all agree that the intelligence community should be given necessary and appropriate tools to help keep us safe,” said Leahy, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee. “But we should also agree that there must be reasonable limits on the surveillance powers we give to the government.”
US senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate’s intelligence committee, joined the ranks of critics on Monday, expressing outrage at American intelligence collection on allies, and pique that her committee was not informed.
The White House is conducting a review of intelligence programs prompted by disclosures about top secret spying programs to the media by Snowden, who is living in Russia, out of reach of US attempts to arrest him.
The testimony of the spy chiefs will cover NSA programs and potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates electronic eavesdropping.
The Senate intelligence committee conducted a similar hearing in September at which Feinstein said proposals included putting limits on the NSA’s phone metadata program, prohibiting collection of the content of phone calls, and legally requiring that intelligence analysts have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number was associated with terrorism in order to query the database.