In Depth

Europeans gave us phone data NSA director tells Congress

US spy agency begins Snowden fight back insisting press 'don't understand' leaked documents

REPORTS that the National Security Agency (NSA) monitored the phone calls of thousands of people in Europe are "completely false", the agency's director has said.

Launching what the Daily Telegraph calls a "push back" against weeks of hostile press reports, General Keith Alexander told the House intelligence committee that documents leaked by Edward Snowden have been misinterpreted and misrepresented.

"To be perfectly clear, this is not information that we collected on European citizens," Alexander said. The reporting "that led people to believe that the NSA or United States collected that information is false, and it's false that it was collected on European citizens", he insisted. "It was neither."

Alexander claimed that much of the data was in fact collected by European spy agencies who were monitoring their citizens in countries outside of Europe. That data was later shared with the NSA.

Continuing his "aggressive rebuttal" of claims made in several European newspapers including France's Le Monde and Spain's El Mundo, the NSA director said documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden has been misinterpreted by journalists. "They and the person who stole the classified data [Snowden] do not understand what they were looking at," he said.

Alexander's message was underlined in a briefing given to journalists at the Wall Street Journal by senior US officials. The paper says that the "millions of phone records at the centre of a firestorm in Europe" were supplied to the US by European spy agencies.

The revelations suggest "a greater level of European involvement in global surveillance, in conjunction at times with the NSA", says the WSJ. The disclosures also put European leaders such as Angela Merkel who "loudly protested reports of the NSA's spying in a difficult spot, showing how their spy agencies aided the Americans".

James Lewis, a former State Department official told the paper: "That the evil NSA and the wicked US were the only ones engaged in this gross violation of international norms - that was the fairy tale. It was never true. The US's behaviour wasn't outside the norm. It is the norm."

Alexander told the House intelligence committee that lawmakers should be careful they did not compromise US intelligence operations by overly restricting surveillance. But The Guardian says the White House has indicated that it would support at "least some of the congressional efforts to rein in the controversial surveillance practices of the NSA".

An internal government review in the wake of Snowden revelations has already led to changes in US intelligence-gathering activities – "thought to be a ban on eavesdropping on the leaders of friendly governments and a curb on surveillance at the United Nations".

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