(CNN) — The head of the National Security Agency denied Tuesday that the United States collected telephone and e-mail records directly from European citizens, calling reports based on leaks by Edward Snowden “completely false.”
“To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens. It represents information that we, and our NATO allies, have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations,” Army Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA director, told a House committee reviewing the agency’s surveillance activities.
The statement by Alexander before the House Intelligence Committee came as a number of lawmakers called for changes to the way intelligence is collected.
The hearing, billed as a discussion of potential changes to the 35-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, commonly known as FISA, follows a report by the German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Some reports also suggest the United States carried out surveillance on French and Spanish citizens.
It was the latest in a series of allegations that stem from disclosures given to news organizations by Snowden, the former NSA contractor who describes himself as a whistle-blower.
The allegations have rocked U.S.-European relations with a number of countries calling for investigations. Germany has threatened to cut off the ability of the United States to track bank transfers associated with terror groups.
As the nation’s spy chiefs testified, two ranking lawmakers from opposing parties introduced bills that call for greater transparency and oversight of the NSA’s surveillance programs.
But during the hearing, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said collecting foreign intelligence was important to protecting Americans and allies from terrorism.
“Every nation collects foreign intelligence. That is not unique to the United States,” said Rogers, R-Michigan. “What is unique to the United States is our level of oversight, our commitment to privacy protections, and our checks and balances on intelligence collection.”
Alexander said media outlets misinterpreted documents that were leaked. He said the NSA legally collected metadata from some phone calls, and the rest of the metadata came from U.S. allies.
He said European intelligence services collected phone records in war zones and other areas outside their borders and shared them with the NSA.
Alexander vigorously defended the agency’s intelligence gathering activities, saying it has saved lives “not only here but in Europe and around the world.”
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