Millions of secretly collected phone records that triggered a furor in Europe over spying by the U.S. National Security Agency were actually supplied by European spy agencies, The Wall Street Journal reported
"That the evil NSA and the wicked U.S. were the only ones engaged in this gross violation of international norms — that was the fairy tale," James Lewis, a former State Department official, told the Journal.
"It was never true. The U.S's behavior wasn't outside the norm. It is the norm."
Recent reports in France, Spain, and Italy — based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — supposedly showed how extensive the NSA's sweeps of phone records were in those countries, including eavesdropping on German chancellor Angela Merkel
France's Le Monde said the documents showed that more than 70 million French phone records were collected by the NSA between early December 2012 and early January, prompting Paris to lodge a protest with the United States, the Journal said.
In Spain, El Mundo reported it had seen NSA documents that showed the U.S. spy agency had intercepted 60.5 million Spanish phone calls during the same time period.
U.S. officials had called the reports inaccurate.
At a congressional hearing Tuesday, the NSA's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, confirmed that documents released by Snowden didn't represent data collected by the NSA or any other U.S. agency — and didn't include records from calls within those countries.
He said the data were from a system that contained phone records collected by the United States and NATO countries "in defense of our countries and in support of military operations."
He said the conclusion that the United States collected the data "is false. And it's false that it was collected on European citizens. It was neither."
French officials declined to comment.
A Spanish official said Spain's intelligence collaboration with the NSA has been limited to theaters of operations in Mali, Afghanistan, and certain international operations against jihadist groups. The information published in El Mundo was gathered during these operations, not in Spain.
The Italian Embassy in Washington didn't immediately respond to the Journal's request for comment.
At Tuesday's House Intelligence Committee hearing, lawmakers also pressed Alexander and the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the NSA's tapping of world leaders' phone conversations, including Merkel's.
Asked whether allies spy on the United States, Clapper said, "Absolutely."
Reporting to policymakers on the "plans and intentions" of world leaders is a standard request to intelligence agencies like the NSA, Clapper added — saying the best way to understand a foreign leader's intentions is to obtain that person's communications.
The Journal reported some intelligence officials disputed claims the president and top White House officials were unaware of how such information is obtained.
"If there's an intelligence report that says the leader of this country is likely to say X or Y, where do you think that comes from?" the official told the Journal.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., defended the NSA's operations.
"I am a little concerned about where we are — that we've decided that we're going to name our intelligence services at the earliest opportunity as the bad guys in the process of trying to collect information lawfully and legally, with the most oversight that I've ever seen," he said.
"We're the only intelligence service in the world that is forced to go to a court before they even collect on foreign intelligence operations, which is shocking to me."
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