By Tabassum Zakaria and Deborah Charles
When top U.S. intelligence officials testified at a congressional hearing weeks ago, the public uproar was over the National Security Agency collecting the phone and email records of Americans.
But when the NSA director and other spy chiefs appear at a House Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday, it will be against a backdrop of angry European allies accusing the United States of spying on their leaders and citizens.
The most prominent target appears to have been German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government said last week it had learned the United States may have monitored her mobile phone.
More than any previous disclosures from material given to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the reports of spying on close U.S. allies have forced the White House to promise reforms and even acknowledge that America’s electronic surveillance may have gone too far.
“We recognize there need to be additional constraints on how we gather and use intelligence,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.
Congress’ top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, told reporters on Tuesday there should be a review of NSA spying on allied leaders. He said the United States must balance its obligations to allies with its responsibility to keep Americans safe.
Two lawmakers from different political parties introduced legislation to end the government’s “dragnet collection” of information. The bill also calls for greater oversight, transparency and accountability for domestic surveillance.
Democratic U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, the primary authors of the USA Patriot Act implemented after Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to improve the government’s ability to protect its citizens, now want to make sure information gathering does not go too far.
“The government surveillance programs conducted under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act are far broader than the American people previously understood,” said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community.”
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate’s intelligence committee, joined the ranks of critics on Monday, expressing outrage at American intelligence collection on allies, and pique that her committee was not informed.
“With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany -let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed,” said Feinstein, who has been a staunch defender of some of the NSA programs leaked by Snowden.
The White House is conducting a review of intelligence programs prompted by disclosures about top secret spying programs to the media by Snowden, who is living in Russia, out of reach of U.S. attempts to arrest him.
NSA Director General Keith Alexander, NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Deputy Attorney General James Cole will testify before the House Intelligence Committee at 1:30 p.m. (1730 GMT).
Their testimony will cover NSA programs and potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates electronic eavesdropping.
The Senate Intelligence Committee conducted a similar hearing in September at which Feinstein said proposals included putting limits on the NSA’s phone metadata program, prohibiting collection of the content of phone calls, and legally requiring that intelligence analysts have a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a phone number was associated with terrorism in order to query the database.
The allegations of U.S. spying on Merkel and other leaders are likely to have a lasting impact on relations, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the last several years, Europeans have been disappointed with the Obama administration over its failure to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and its use of drone strikes to kill terrorism suspects. The spectacle of the recent federal government shutdown also dented U.S. prestige in Europe.
“It’s just raising really big doubts, uncertainties and question marks about not only the president’s leadership but whether the United States is a reliable ally,” said Conley, a deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe in the George W. Bush administration.