Washington: The head of the US National Security Agency today defended his organisation and dismissed as "completely false" reports that the spy agency collected data on millions of phone calls in Europe.
"The assertions by reporters in France, Le Monde, Spain, El Mundo, and Italy, L`Espresso, that NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls are completely false," the NSA Director General Keith Alexander, said.
"They cite as evidence screen shots of the results of a Web tool used for data management purposes, but both they and the person who stole the classified data did not understand what they were looking at," Alexander told US lawmakers at a Congressional hearing.
"The Web tool counts metadata records from around the world and displays the totals in several different formats. The sources of the metadata include data legally collected by NSA under its various authorities, as well as data provided to NSA by foreign partners," Alexander said.
Alexander said foreign intelligence services collected phone records in war zones and other areas outside their borders and provided them to the spy agency ? an operation that was misunderstood by French and Spanish newspapers that reported that the NSA was conducting surveillance in their countries.
"To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defence of our countries and in support of military operations," he said.
Alexander made the comments in response to questions from the panel`s chairman Mike Rogers about reports that the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records in a one-month period late last year and early this year and intercepted more than 60 million phone calls in Spain during the same time frame.
Based on the documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former CIA contractor, media reports have said that the NSA tapped on the cellphone communications of foreign leaders of as many as 35 countries including that of Germany and France resulting in outrage in European countries.
"For our foreign partners and our allies, we hold ourselves to that same standard no matter if we`re operating here or abroad. If we do something that does not fall within an intelligence requirement, it is wrong," Alexander said.
"We report it. We hold our people accountable. If they did that willfully and disobeyed orders, then they are held accountable," he said.
The Director of National Intelligence James R Clapper,
said in view of several unauthorised disclosure, he has declassified and publicly released a series of documents related to foreign intelligence surveillance and the domestic internet and phone surveillance.
"The rules and oversight that govern us ensure we do what the American people want us to do, which is protect our nation`s security and our precious liberties. So I`ll repeat. We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes, and we only work within the law," he said.
"To be sure, on occasions, we`ve made mistakes, some quite significant. But these are usually caused by human error or technical problems. And whenever we`ve found mistakes, we`ve reported," Clapper said.
He said the American intelligence community stands ready to work with Congress to adjust foreign surveillance and to further protect privacy and civil liberties.
"I think there are some principles we already agree on. First, we must always protect our sources, methods, targets, partners, and liaison relationships," he said.
"We must do a better job in helping the American people understand what we do, why we do it, and most importantly, the rigorous oversight that helps ensure we do it correctly.
"And third, we take every opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of every American. But we also have to remain mindful of the potential negative long-term impact of overcorrecting the authorizations granted to intelligence community," Clapper said.