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U.S. intel officials defend surveillance of foreign intentions as ‘fundamental’

October 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The criticism over U.S. surveillance programs at home and abroad continued this afternoon at a House Intelligence Committee hearing. But the directors of national intelligence and the National Security Agency pushed back.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER, retired National Intelligence Director: One of the first things I learned in intel school in 1963, that this is the fundamental given in the intelligence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That fundamental, according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is learning the intentions of foreign leaders, even if it means spying on allies. What’s more, he told today’s House hearing, it’s a two-way street.

REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-Mich.: 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?

JAMES CLAPPER: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There have been disclosures in recent days that the National Security Agency eavesdropped on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The NSA’s director, Army General Keith Alexander, defended the general practice of surveillance in the U.S. and abroad to prevent terrorist attacks.

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GEN. KEITH ALEXANDER, National Security Agency: There has not been a mass casualty here in the U.S. since 2001. That’s not by luck. They didn’t stop hating us. They didn’t say that they were going to just forgive this. They continue to try. It is the great members in the intelligence community, our military, our law enforcement that has stood up and said, this is our job, and we do it with our partners and allies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers also defended the NSA’s efforts.

MIKE ROGERS: The way we go forward is to make sure that our programs are protected and the people, by the way, who have taken those oaths and who are doing their best not be demonized in the process. This is the time for leadership in a very dangerous and chaotic world. It’s not a time to apologize.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the other hand, Democrat Jan Schakowsky of Illinois underscored concerns by some that the surveillance has gone too far.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY, D-Ill.: Why did we not know that heads of state were being eavesdropped on, spied on? The reason why it’s important is because it is a policy issue that has very broad implications. It could put the United States in a difficult position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein expressed outrage over spying on friendly foreign leaders. She said, White House officials assured her it’s going to end. The White House said only that a review is under way.

For his part, the president declined to address reports that he didn’t learn of the practice until last summer. Instead, he told the Fusion news channel.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, first of all, I’m not confirming a bunch of assumptions that have been made in the press. There are some very strict laws governing what we do internally, and that was the initial concern brought about by some of the Snowden disclosures. Internationally, there are less constraints on how our intelligence teams operate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called today for an end to most of the NSA’s surveillance of phone records and e-mails.