U.S. officials both condemn, defend eavesdropping on allies

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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration may curtail eavesdropping on leaders of U.S. allies amid a growing backlash over years of alleged surveillance of foreign leaders, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she was told by the White House that data "collection on our allies will not continue."

She said her committee will conduct an inquiry into U.S. spying that has roiled ties with nations including Germany, France and Brazil.

"A total review of all intelligence programs is necessary," Ms. Feinstein said in an emailed statement Monday.

At the same time, top intelligence officials defended their operations before a House committee Tuesday as they faced growing criticism and calls for a congressional review of the nation's surveillance efforts.

"To be sure, on occasion we have made mistakes," said James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, although he attributed most of them to human error.

He and Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, said members of the intelligence community were also U.S. citizens who were determined to protect privacy while identifying national security threats.

Mr. Clapper also said the intelligence agencies would work with Congress to address any concerns.

News reports in France's Le Monde and Spain's El Mundo that the National Security Agency collected the communications records of millions of European citizens "are completely false," Gen. Alexander told the committee.

"This is not information that we collected on European citizens," Gen. Alexander said. The reports cite data that the U.S. and North American Treaty Organization allies have collected "in defense of our countries and in support of our military operations," Gen. Alexander said.

White House officials Tuesday refused to comment on Ms. Feinstein's remarks, saying that a review of surveillance programs will be completed by the end of the year.

"Some decisions have been made about our intelligence gathering," White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "but we're not going to get into details."

Revelations about the extent of data and communications swept up by the NSA since 9/11 have complicated U.S. relations with allies, particularly in Europe where the administration is seeking a trans-Atlantic trade agreement. Germany and Brazil are testing support at the United Nations for a resolution expressing deep concern about the spying.

In the latest twist, the Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that the collection of telephone records that has drawn outrage in France and Spain was conducted by intelligence services in those countries and shared with the NSA.

Mr. Carney declined to address "specific alleged activities" of the U.S. or its allies.

The surveillance of citizens in France and Spain is separate from reports that the U.S. collected telephone records of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

While defending broad intelligence collection as necessary to defend U.S. security and vowing to review privacy safeguards, President Barack Obama and his aides repeatedly refused to directly address allegations that the spying included foreign leaders or answer questions about when and what the president knew.

"The national security operations, generally, have one purpose and that is to make sure the American people are safe and that I'm making good decisions," Mr. Obama said in an interview broadcast Monday by Fusion, a joint cable channel of ABC News and Spanish-language broadcaster Univision.

Ms. Feinstein said she is "totally opposed" to collecting intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies unless the nation is engaged in hostilities or there is an emergency need for such surveillance. She said Congress hasn't been adequately informed about the programs and called for stronger oversight.

The controversy stems from a series of national security leaks from former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum by Russia.

Bloomberg News reporter Chris Strohm and The New York Times contributed.


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