WASHINGTON — The nation's top spymaster on Tuesday said the White House had long been aware in general terms of the National Security Agency's overseas eavesdropping, stoutly defending the agency's intelligence-gathering methods and suggesting possible divisions within the Obama administration.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the NSA had kept senior officials in the National Security Council informed of surveillance it was conducting in foreign countries. He did not specifically say whether President Barack Obama was told of these spying efforts, but he appeared to challenge assertions in recent days that the White House had been in the dark about some of the agency's practices.
Clapper and the agency's director, Gen. Keith Alexander, vigorously rejected suggestions that the agency was a rogue institution, trawling for information on ordinary citizens and leaders of America's closest allies, without the knowledge of its Washington overseers.
Their testimony came amid mounting questions about how the NSA collects information overseas, with Republicans and Democrats calling for a congressional review, lawmakers introducing a bill that would curb its activities, and Obama poised to impose his own constraints, particularly on monitoring the leaders of friendly nations. At the same time, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say there is a growing sense of anger with the White House for what they see as attempts by the administration to pin the blame for the controversy squarely on them.
Alexander said news media reports that the NSA had vacuumed up tens of millions of telephone calls in France, Spain and Italy were "completely false." That data, he said, is at least partly collected by the intelligence services of those countries and provided to the NSA.
Both he and Clapper said that spying on foreign leaders — even those of allies — was a basic tenet of intelligence tradecraft and had gone on for decades. European countries, Clapper said, routinely seek to listen in on the conversations of U.S. leaders.
"Some of this reminds me of the classic movie Casablanca — 'My God, there's gambling going on here,' " Clapper said, twisting the line from the movie uttered by a corrupt French official who feigns outrage at the very activity in which he avidly partakes.
Asked whether the White House knows about the NSA's intelligence-gathering, including on foreign leaders, Clapper said, "They can and do." But, he added, "I have to say that that does not extend down to the level of detail. We're talking about a huge enterprise here, with thousands and thousands of individual requirements."
The White House has faced criticism for the NSA's surveillance practices since the first revelations by a former agency contractor, Edward J. Snowden, in June. But in recent weeks it has struggled to quell a new diplomatic storm over reports that the agency monitored the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for more than a decade. White House officials said the president did not know of that surveillance, but that he has told Merkel that the United States is not monitoring her phone now and would not in the future.
Several current and former U.S. officials said that presidents and their senior national security advisers have long known about which foreign leaders the United States spied on.
"It would be unusual for the White House senior staff not to know the exact source and method of collection," said Michael Allen, a National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration and a former staff director for the House Intelligence Committee. "That information helps a policymaker assess the reliability of the intelligence."
Allen, the author of book about intelligence reform called Blinking Red, said this information often comes to the president during preparation for phone calls or meetings with the foreign leaders.
The White House declined to discuss intelligence policies, pending the completion of a review of intelligence-gathering practices that will be completed in December. The vast majority of intelligence that made it into Obama's daily intelligence briefings focused on potential threats, from al-Qaida plots to Iran's nuclear program, the New York Times reported, citing a senior administration official.
Clapper and Alexander got a warm reception from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who defended the NSA's methods.
But elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the outrage among U.S. allies was clearly fueling concern.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the fiercest defenders of U.S. surveillance operations, said Monday that she did "not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers." Feinstein said her committee would be conducting a "major review" of the intelligence programs.
Another strong defender of the NSA, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed that "there needs to be review, there ought to be review, and it ought to be thorough."
"We've got obligations to the American people to keep them safe," he said. "We've got obligations to our allies around the world. But having said that, we've got to find the right balance here. We're imbalanced as we stand here."
On Tuesday, House Democrats and Republicans introduced a bill that would curb some of the NSA's practices, including the bulk collection of telephone data inside the United States and so-called reverse targeting, in which agencies eavesdrop on non-Americans to collect data on communications to or from an American citizen.
"The picture drawn is one of a surveillance system run amok," said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., a sponsor of the bill.
Even on the House Intelligence Committee, members sparred over what they had been told by the intelligence agencies about eavesdropping on foreign leaders. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a senior member of the committee, said that he had first learned about the practice after the recent news media reports.
"Would you consider that a wiretap of a leader of an allied country would be a significant intelligence activity requiring a report to the intelligence committees?" Schiff asked Clapper.
Clapper said the agencies had "lived up to the letter and spirit of that requirement."
Schiff disagreed, saying that the agencies had much work to do "to make sure we're getting the information we need." He said that disclosures about such eavesdropping could create significant "blowback."
Rogers disputed Schiff's claim, saying that Schiff needed to take the time to educate himself about what the committee had been briefed on.
"To make the case that somehow we are in the dark is mystifying to me," Rogers said. "It is disingenuous to imply that this committee did not have a full and complete understanding of activities of the intelligence community as was directed under the national intelligence priority framework to include sources and methods."