National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander on Wednesday said reports detailing American spying in Europe were exaggerated, accusing the press of publishing false reports to help sell papers.
Alexander made the remarks during a freewheeling question-and-answer session at a Bloomberg-hosted event on cyber-security.
Newspapers in France, Spain and Italy last week published a series of articles based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, sparking anger and outrage among European politicians. The reports alleged that the U.S. had monitored phone traffic of European citizens, and even intercepted communications of world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls.
France's Le Monde reported that the documents revealed that records on more than 70 million French phone calls between early December 2012 and early January 2013 were collected by the NSA.
“The fact that it was false and put out by the White House a week ago didn't get any traction,” he said. “Why? Traction is selling newspapers on false stuff rather than putting the facts out.”
Alexander on Wednesday said that European nations themselves had passed along millions of phone records to help prevent terror attacks against allied troops in war zones around the world.
“This is actually countries working together in support of military operations collecting what they need to do to protect our forces in areas where we act together as nations and in our counter-terrorism efforts,” he said. “It has nothing to do with collection on Europe, period.”
Expressing frustration with the misinformation, Alexander called on the press to make every effort to get the facts straight when it reports on controversial U.S. surveillance programs.
He said U.S. intelligence agencies have their hands tied in trying to correct reports because “we don't want to get out in front of the press because we don't want to make a mistake [and share information about a secret program] and people die.”
He also denied a Wednesday afternoon report in the Washington Post that said the NSA broke into Google and Yahoo data centers to collect information on millions of people, saying any access the U.S. government attained was granted through a court order.
Alexander did not comment on the veracity of separate reports that the agency has monitored world leaders’ communications, including Merkel's cell phone, spied on the United Nations and may have targeted its surveillance efforts at the Vatican.
Echoing Tuesday testimony from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, he said Americans should not be naïve because other European nations are also spying on the U.S. and each other on a regular basis.
“If everyone is doing everyone at the table — spying on each other, that is — we can't be naïve,” he said.
Alexander said he didn't know what is motivating Merkel to express so much outrage publicly if most European governments are conducting similar surveillance.
He said he personally believes U.S. officials can sit down with their European counterparts and hammer out an agreement on surveillance that protects alliances and partnerships in fighting global terrorism.
“We want to figure out how to work with our allies,” he said.
President Obama and other administration officials have tried to reach out to Merkel and other European leaders in recent days to address their concerns.
Members of the European Parliament's civil liberties committee met with Karen Donfried, the senior director for European affairs for the National Security Council, at the White House on Wednesday to discuss the impact of U.S. surveillance programs on EU citizens.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that Germany’s national security adviser and the intelligence coordinator for Merkel met earlier today with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Clapper.
He said the meeting was a “follow-up” to President Obama and Merkel’s phone call last week discussing the reports of U.S. tapping and “part of our efforts to resolve some of the tension that has arisen out of some of the reports on surveillance activities reportedly conducted by the U.S.”
Most American outrage has focused on existing law - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and the PATRIOT Act, both which allow the NSA to obtain phone call logs and Internet communications if they obtain a court order authorizing the collection. Those laws, however, don't apply to U.S. intelligence surveillance overseas, and key lawmakers on Capitol Hill have vowed a top-to-bottom review of those operations.
Gen. Alexander defended the NSA's conduct and said the surveillance programs in questions, which fall under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, have helped thwart dozens of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
“It's legal, it's necessary and it's authorized, in every case,” he said.
Alexander described the area of the law that allows the NSA to gain access to email and phone record data if it first obtains a court order as “a hornet's nest.” He said he knew it was his agency's duty to carry out the surveillance and worried that if the law is removed U.S. intelligence agencies would face a blind spot and be hampered in their ability to prevent future terrorist attacks.
In a lighter moment, Alexander also said the agency was prepared to take “some heat” if details of the programs were exposed, “but we didn't know we would take this much heat.”
This story was first published at 4:03 p.m. and has been updated.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed quotes to Gen. Alexander.