The United States' senior intelligence chiefs confirmed Tuesday that it was a commonplace to spy on foreign leaders – including both allies and adversaries – and said they were surprised by the furor over revelations about such monitoring.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said snooping on foreign leaders was a "hardy perennial" in the intelligence community and a "basic tenet of what are to collect and analyze."
"It is one of the first thing I learned in intel school in 1963," said the veteran spy chief, in testimony to a rare open hearing of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Clapper also said he was certain the spies of other countries, both allies and adversaries, tried to snoop on U.S. leaders, a view echoed by General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, the vast electronic and signals agency at the centre of the furor.
We "do not spy on anyone except for valid national security purposes," said Mr. Clapper, adding the intelligence committee and its leaders "care just as much about privacy and rights as the rest of us."
Revelations that the NSA was gathering and trolling through vast data sets of digital traffic as well as intercepting the phone calls of foreign leaders – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have sparked a firestorm of international protest.
Mr. Clapper suggested the outrage over the revelations was disingenuous.
It "reminds me of the classic movie Casablanca," Mr. Clapper told the hearing. "My God, there's gambling going on here," Mr. Clapper parodied the movie, mangling the original quote a little. In the movie the police chief closed Rick's casino, saying: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."
But Mr. Clapper's message was essentially the same: that neither foreign intelligence agencies nor political leaders could possibly be surprised that they are targets.
"Leadership intentions are an important dimension," of what intelligence agencies do, Mr. Clapper said. We need "to determine if what they are saying gels with what is actually going on."
Canada and three other close U.S. allies – Britain, Australia and New Zealand – are all members of the so-called "Five Eyes" group that not only share high-level intelligence but also are committed not to spy on each other. That pact dates back decades.
The current furor over the extent of U.S. intelligence gathering was triggered by leaks originating with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, now living in Russia.
Mr. Snowden was a system administrator at NSA facilities in Hawaii with vast access to the agency's computers. "He took a lot of that with him," admitted Gen. Alexander.
Mr. Clapper called Mr. Snowden a "traitor." And he staunchly defended the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, saying they had thwarted numerous terrorist plots, operated within the law and were subject to greater oversight than the spies of any other country.
At the outset of the hearing, a handful of protesters wearing oversize sunglasses with "Stop Spying" written across them sat in the hearing room.
As for mistakes and over-stepping the legal limits imposed by Congress, Mr. Clapper said they were rare, inadvertent and usually minor. "What we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans," he said.
President Barack Obama said Monday he wanted a review of the scope and extent of U.S. spying although he offered no details.
That won't satisfy even some powerful players in intelligence oversight.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who chairs the Senate's Intelligence Committee, demanded an end to spying on friendly foreign leaders and suggested lawmakers may have been kept in the dark. Congress needs to be "fully informed as to what is actually being carried out" by U.S. intelligence agencies, she said.
"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," she said.