WASHINGTON, October 29 (RIA Novosti) – Top US intelligence officials Tuesday defended sweeping American surveillance programs as “lawful” and said senior US officials have been targets of espionage by the nation’s allies, including European Union members.
“Some of this reminds me a lot of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’: ‘My god, there’s gambling going on here?!’” US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers in a hearing on Capitol Hill, paraphrasing an iconic line in which a police officer feigns surprise at betting going on at a club known for the illicit practice.
Clapper and US National Security Agency (NSA) head Gen. Keith Alexander testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday amid a rising scandal over reported US eavesdropping on foreign citizens and leaders, including the alleged wiretapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.
The reports, based on documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, have sparked outrage among European officials, including a European Parliament delegation visiting Washington this week to discuss the US surveillance dragnet.
Both Clapper and Alexander, however, told Tuesday’s hearing that US allies have targeted the American leadership in espionage operations and that spying on foreign leaders is nothing new.
“It’s one of the first things I learned in intel school,” Clapper said.
US President Barack Obama appears to be moving to stem the damage from the revelations. The White House has told US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that Obama is set to order the NSA to cease eavesdropping on leaders of US allies, the New York Times on Tuesday cited administration and congressional officials as saying.
In a news briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney referred questions about the Times’ report to Feinstein but said “some decisions have been made about our intelligence-gathering operations.”
A White House-ordered review of NSA activities set to be completed by the end of the year will address an “appropriate posture when it comes to heads of state,” Carney said.
Meanwhile, Obama in recent weeks has ordered the NSA to curtail spying at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City, Reuters cited an unidentified US official familiar with the situation as saying Tuesday.
A second unidentified official, a member of the Obama administration, was quoted by Reuters as saying that the United States “is not conducting electronic surveillance targeting” at the UN headquarters, though the official did not address whether such spying had been conducted in the past.
In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Clapper said the United States maintains oversight mechanisms for its surveillance programs unparalleled in the rest of the world and warned against sacrificing security for civil liberties and privacy by “overcorrecting” with an aggressive curbing of such operations.
“We believe we have been lawful and that the rigorous oversight we’ve operated under has been effective,” Clapper said.
“We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes and we do not violate the law,” he added.
Clapper conceded that due to human and technical errors, “mistakes have been made” that have led to an “erosion of trust in the in the intelligence community.”
Snowden, a computer specialist and former NSA contractor, was the focus of international attention over the summer after he leaked classified evidence of US government surveillance programs to the media.
He fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum in Russia in late July despite repeated extradition demands from Washington. He is now living at an undisclosed location in Russia.