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NSA chief calls reports on European phone data collection ‘completely false’

NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander defended his agency’s intelligence gathering methods, saying, ‘We hold ourselves accountable.’

Gen. Keith Alexander, head of the US National Security Agency, launched a spirited defense of the agency’s surveillance programs Tuesday, while testifying before an increasingly hostile Congress.

Speaking before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Alexander said reports published last week about the NSA monitoring European citizens’ phones were “completely false.”

“The assertions by reporters in France, Spain, Italy that NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls are completely false,” he said.

“To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens,”Alexander said, adding that European intelligence agencies shared the phone metadata with the NSA.

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Alexander said he would rather “take the beating” than give up surveillance programs that “prevent the United States from being attacked.”

“We see what a foreign intelligence agency is meant to see,” Alexander said, defending allegations that the NSA had overstepped its bounds. “Everything we do on this program is audited a hundred percent on the business records [of] FISA,” he added.

The congressional hearing was meant discuss potential changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which grants the NSA its authority for data collection.

The increasingly embattled US intelligence community has been called upon to explain reports in European media that it spied upon the leaders and citizens of US allies, based on documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among 35 world leaders allegedly monitored by the NSA, and said ties between the US and Germany had been “severely shaken.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who only months ago condemned Snowden as a traitor for leaking the top secret documents to media organizations, said she was “totally opposed” to data collection on allies.

“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers,” Feinstein said in a statement.

Her words did not seem to extend to spying on the citizens of allied countries.

More from GlobalPost: Among Europe’s leaders, Cameron stands apart on NSA spying scandal

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“Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, 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,” she said.

“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.”

Feinstein called for a major review of US intelligence collection. US lawmakers also planned to introduce the Freedom Act, designed to curtail the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, on Tuesday.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole were present as Alexander testified Tuesday.

“We hold ourselves accountable,” Alexander insisted, saying those responsible for violations in intelligence gathering were punished.

Clapper, who spoke before Alexander, said, “We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes and we do not violate the law.” He blamed any violations on human error.

He also defended the allegations of the NSA monitoring the leaders of allied countries, saying, “Leadership intentions is kind of a basic tenet of what we collect and analyze.”

Some reportsespecially in German media, suggested that President Barack Obama was aware of the spying on world leaders, while NSA officials contradicted that claim.

The New York Times reported that Obama was set to order the NSA to stop monitoring the leaders of US allies, citing administration and congressional officials. While the White House said no final decision had been made as of Monday, any move to restrict the NSA’s monitoring would represent a major shift.

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More from GlobalPost: Germany: US may finally grasp the NSA scandal’s seriousness