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Intelligence agencies are in the business of gathering information and forecasting where events may be going. In the case of the stream of revelations about U.S. spying, the agencies seem never to have seen it coming; they've often been on the defensive. But some of the latest documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, prompted a strong U.S. response.
News reports about the documents suggested the NSA intercepted phone calls in Europe. Separate reports suggest the U.S. eavesdropped on foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At a congressional hearing, officials led by NSA Director Keith Alexander said some allegations were false and others misleading.
NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: NSA Director Alexander launched quickly into in an attack on one series of reports in particular: French, Spanish, and Italian newspapers had said the NSA had intercepted millions of phone calls in Europe. They based those stories on NSA records leaked by Edward Snowden. But Alexander said the reports were just based on screenshots of the data and the reporters didn't understand what they were looking at.
KEITH ALEXANDER: Those screen shots that lead people to believe that we, NSA or the United States, collected that information is false. And it's false that it was collected on European citizens.
GJELTEN: The telephone data, Alexander said, was actually gathered jointly by U.S. and NATO countries in support of military operations, and they mostly involved communications outside Europe. That apparent correction of the record may relieve some of the tension that has arisen between the United States and its allies over NSA surveillance.
But there remains another issue: the charge that the NSA eavesdrops on the communications of other heads of state, including those friendly to the United States. The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, wouldn't comment on specific cases. But in general he defended the practice of gathering intelligence on what he called leadership intentions.
JAMES CLAPPER: It's invaluable to us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are, how that would impact us across a whole range of issues. And it isn't just leaders themselves. It's what goes on around them and the policies that they convey to their governments.
GJELTEN: The most controversial example has been the monitoring of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's communications. Michael Allen, who served as a national security advisor to President Bush, says he can imagine why U.S. officials would want to listen to Merkel's communications, particularly regarding Iran.
MICHAEL ALLEN: The Germans have been among the leaders in Europe who have been seeking negotiations. And so it would be a very important U.S. intelligence priority to try and figure out where our allies stand, vis-a-vis sanctions on Iran and what their nuclear program looks like going forward.
GJELTEN: Allen was also staff director on the House Intelligence Committee and he has a new book on intelligence reform. He says the obvious risk of eavesdropping on friendly heads of state is that they might find out and not like it. The challenge: striking the right balance
ALLEN: Between the gain of the information - the intelligence gain - versus the foreign policy fallout if it's exposed, like it was in this case. And I think people are revisiting this balancing of interests this week.
GJELTEN: Indeed, further damage to U.S. relations with its allies as a result of all these disclosures is probably inevitable. The news that European governments have been collaborating with the NSA in telephone intercepts could put that intelligence sharing in jeopardy, if those disclosures anger European publics.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.