Washington: The director of the National Security Agency conceded yesterday that scaling back some of his agency’s surveillance on foreign leaders might be appropriate.
“I think in some cases the partnerships are more important,” said army general Keith Alexander, the embattled NSA director, launching a public defence of the spy agency for the second time in as many days as an international row over the NSA continued.
Alexander also issued a flat denial of a new leak from whistleblower Edward Snowden published by the Washington Post as Alexander spoke, which claimed that the NSA was able to intercept Google and Yahoo user information as it was transferred between data centres.
Partnerships between Washington and several European nations, particularly Germany, have come under extreme strain since Chancellor Angela Merkel confronted the US about the NSA intercepting her phone calls.
The White House, evidently chastened by the fallout in recent days, has begun suggesting that some restrictions on foreign-focused surveillance are forthcoming — something that US legislators have balked at, despite months of wide-ranging leaks from Snowden.
Alexander, during an appearance at a Bloomberg government forum in Washington, did not directly confirm the report, but intimated throughout his lunchtime talk that spying on foreign leaders was widespread throughout global intelligence services.
Echoing the recent White House line, Alexander said that the US had to rebalance its surveillance needs with its diplomatic and economic ones. But the NSA director, who spent much of his talk defending his embattled agency, suggested that there would be deleterious security consequences to scaling back foreign-leader surveillance.
“We have to define it. And it has to be both ways. We cannot be naive enough to say, ‘Well, it’s just us, or it’s just them’,” Alexander said. It was a rare concession from Alexander, who argued forcefully and emotionally at a Tuesday hearing of the House intelligence committee that the NSA’s existing surveillance authorities should neither be restricted nor pose a threat to civil liberties.