The national intelligence director says the United States has commonly spied on leaders of its foreign allies for decades — just as they are spying on U.S. officials.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper told Congress on Tuesday that it's "kind of a basic tenet" of U.S. intelligence-gathering to find out the intentions of foreign leaders.
He said it's done to make sure "what they are saying gels with what's actually going on" and to determine how allies' policies would affect the U.S.
Clapper also said allies have "absolutely" spied on U.S. officials. He did not offer specifics.
Recent reports show the National Security Agency monitored the cellphone conversations of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The White House is considering banning eavesdropping on friendly foreign leaders.
U.S. espionage chiefs hit back Tuesday, saying the reports that U.S. eavesdroppers scooped up millions of phone records in Europe were "completely false."
In a stunning twist to the transatlantic spying storm, Keith Alexander, head of the National Security Agency, said that in many cases European spy agencies had accessed phone records and shared them with the NSA.
The revelations came as a senior official said President Barack Obama was considering banning U.S. spies from tapping the telephones of allied leaders in the wake of German outrage over the snooping on Merkel's communications.
The United States' European allies have spent days angrily protesting after newspaper reports, based on leaks from fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that Washington collected tens of millions of telephone calls and online communications in Europe as part as a vast anti-terror sweep.
But the two top spy agency chiefs testifying before Congress said the reports were based on a misunderstanding of information passed by Snowden to European newspapers.
"The assertions by reporters in France, Spain, Italy that NSA collected tens of millions of phone calls are completely false," Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee
"To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens," he said.
Hours earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that electronic spying was carried out by the intelligence agencies of France and Spain -- outside their own borders and sometimes in war zones -- and then passed on to the NSA.
The claims, if true, could embarrass European governments that have vehemently protested to the United States about alleged overreaching and infringments on the privacy of its citizens by the NSA.
Alexander said journalists had misinterpreted leaked data about the alleged spying operations.
"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," he said.
Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, backed up claims that the European media reports were wrong.
"This was not the United States collecting on France and Germany. This was France and Germany collecting. And it had nothing to do with their citizens, it had to do with collecting in NATO areas of war, like Afghanistan," she said.
There was no immediate comment from the spy agencies in the European countries mentioned.
In apparently orchestrated exchanges in the House hearing, Alexander and Clapper told lawmakers that foreign nations were also spying on U.S. leaders.
"Do you believe that the allies have conducted or at any time, any type of espionage activity against the United States of America, our intelligence services, our leaders or otherwise?" asked Mike Rogers, chairman of the House committee.
"Absolutely," Clapper said.
The United States took a new battering in Europe on Tuesday when Spain's public prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation into its reported mass eavesdropping on millions of telephone calls to determine whether a crime was committed.
The move came a day after the U.S. ambassador to Madrid was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear a demand for explanations.
Spain became involved after the El Mundo daily published a classified document purportedly showing that U.S. intelligence services tracked 60.5 million Spanish telephone calls in one month.
The NSA recorded the origin and destination of the calls and their duration but not the content, said El Mundo, which printed a classified graph showing 30 days of call tracing up to Jan. 8 this year.
Washington stands accused of similar mass sweeps of online and telephonic data across the globe as part of its anti-terrorism surveillance.
The new revelations about NSA programs came with a delegation of European lawmakers in Washington to complain of U.S. espionage activity against its allies.
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