WASHINGTON — The nation’s top spymaster said Tuesday that the White House had long been aware in general terms of the National Security Agency’s overseas eavesdropping, stoutly defending the agency’s intelligence-gathering methods and suggesting possible divisions within the Obama administration.
The official, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the NSA had kept senior officials in the National Security Council informed of surveillance it was conducting in foreign countries. He did not specifically say whether President Obama was told of these spying efforts, but he appeared to challenge assertions in recent days that the White House had been in the dark about some of the agency’s practices.
Clapper and the agency’s director, General Keith Alexander, rejected suggestions that the agency was a rogue institution, trawling for information on ordinary citizens and leaders of America’s closest allies, without the knowledge of its Washington overseers.
Their testimony came amid mounting questions about how the NSA collects information overseas, with Republicans and Democrats calling for a congressional review, lawmakers introducing a bill that would curb its activities, and Obama poised to impose his own constraints, particularly on monitoring the leaders of friendly nations. At the same time, current and former US intelligence officials say there is a growing sense of anger with the White House for what they see as attempts by the administration to pin the blame for the controversy squarely on them.
Alexander said news reports that the NSA had vacuumed up tens of millions of telephone calls in France, Spain, and Italy were “completely false.” That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the intelligence services of those countries and provided to the NSA.
Still, both he and Clapper said that spying on foreign leaders — even those of allies — was a basic tenet of intelligence tradecraft and had gone on for decades. European countries, Clapper said, routinely seek to listen in on the conversations of US leaders.
“Some of this reminds me of the classic movie ‘Casablanca’ — ‘My God, there’s gambling going on here,’ ” Clapper said, twisting the line from the movie uttered by a corrupt French official who feigns outrage at the very activity in which he avidly partakes.
Asked whether the White House knows about the NSA’s intelligence-gathering, including on foreign leaders, Clapper said, “They can and do.” But, he added, “I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We’re talking about a huge enterprise here.”
The White House has faced criticism for the NSA’s surveillance practices since the first revelations by a former agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, in June. But in recent weeks it has struggled to quell a new storm over reports the agency monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for more than a decade. White House officials said the president did not know of that surveillance, but that he has told Merkel that the US is not monitoring her phone now.
Several current and former US officials said that presidents and their senior national security advisers have long known about which foreign leaders the United States spied on.
“It would be unusual for the White House senior staff not to know the exact source and method of collection,” said Michael Allen, a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration. “That information helps a policy maker assess the reliability of the intelligence.”
Allen, the author of book about intelligence reform called “Blinking Red,” said this information often comes to the president during preparation for phone calls or meetings with the foreign leaders.
The White House declined to discuss intelligence policies, pending the completion of a review of intelligence-gathering practices that will be completed in December. But a senior administration official noted that the vast majority of intelligence that made it into Obama’s daily intelligence briefings focused on potential threats, from Al Qaeda plots to Iran’s nuclear program.
“These are front-burner, first-tier issues,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “He’s not getting many briefings on intelligence about Germany.”
Clapper and Alexander got a warm reception from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Mike Rogers, Republican of Michigan, who defended the NSA’s methods and said he had been adequately briefed about its activities.
But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the outrage among US allies was clearly fueling concern.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that she did “not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or e-mails of friendly presidents and prime ministers.” She said her committee would be conducting a “major review” of the intelligence programs.