“This is not information that we collected on European citizens,” Alexander told the House Intelligence Committee. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
Alexander made the comments in response to questions from the panel’s chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), about reports that the NSA collected more than 70 million French phone records in a one-month period late last year and early this year and intercepted more than 60 million phone calls in Spain during the same time frame.
The reports, based on revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, stirred public anger and prompted a diplomatic protest from France.
Apparently referring to a slide outlining the information, Alexander said the leaker and reporters “did not understand what they were looking at.” The sources of the data on the slide included information the NSA collected under its various authorities, as well as data that foreign partners provided to the agency, he said.
Separately, several current and former officials on Tuesday described a 2008 incident in which Germany’s BND intelligence service inadvertently turned over a list of 300 phone numbers of U.S. citizens and residents, raising suspicion that Germany was conducting surveillance here.
The disclosure comes as Washington has faced heightened criticism over revelations that the NSA had for years tapped the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which set off a furor last week.
The White House said late Tuesday that Obama and Merkel have agreed to “intensify cooperation” between the two countries’ intelligence services. As part of that effort, a senior German delegation is scheduled to meet Wednesday with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and other officials at the White House, officials said.
Alexander appeared Tuesday alongside Clapper and two other top administration officials at a hearing called to discuss reforms to NSA surveillance programs that were overtaken by the allegations of spying against European allies and debate about the proper scope of such surveillance.
The French and Spanish intelligence agencies have had extensive, long-running programs to share millions of phone records with the United States for counterterrorism and defense purposes, according to current and former officials familiar with the effort.