WASHINGTON — The head of the National Security Agency on Tuesday vigorously challenged recent reports that the United States had been gathering the phone records of millions of Europeans, saying that the records had in fact been turned over by allied spy services.
“This is not information we collected on European citizens,” said the agency’s director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander. “It represents information that we and our NATO allies have collected in defense of our countries and in support of military operations.”
General Alexander said that phone data was generally collected outside Europe.
The Wall Street Journal reported on its website on Tuesday that intelligence services in France and Spain had collected phone records of their citizens and turned them over to the N.S.A. as part of an arrangement to mitigate threats against American and allied troops and civilians.
Video | James Clapper's Testimony in 2 Minutes Top intelligence officials defended their operations before a House committee on Tuesday as they faced growing criticism and calls for a congressional review of the nation’s surveillance efforts.
But General Alexander and James R. Clapper Jr., director of national intelligence, broadly defended the N.S.A.'s practice of spying on foreign leaders. Such espionage, they said, was a basic pillar of American intelligence operations that had gone on for decades.
Both men said the intelligence was invaluable because it provided American leaders with an idea of how other countries planned to act toward the United States.
Such spying was essential, the officials said, because other countries, including allies, spy on the United States. “It is one of the first things I learned in intelligence school in 1963,” Mr. Clapper said. “It’s a fundamental given.”
The two officials defended their operations before the House Intelligence Committee at a time the N.S.A. has come under growing criticsm and calls for a congressional review of the nation’s surveillance efforts. They said members of the intelligence community were also American citizens who were determined to protect American privacy while identifying national security threats.
“To be sure, on occasion we have made mistakes,” Mr. Clapper said, adding that the intelligence agencies would work with Congress to address any concerns.
But the committee chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said he was disturbed by the criticisms of the intelligence services, adding that many recent reports — including the ones in Europe about N.S.A. collection there — were inaccurate.
“This is the time for leadership, it is not a time to apologize,” Mr. Rogers said.
The intelligence committee hearing took place as key Congressional Republicans and Democrats expressed misgivings in the wake of a report that the N.S.A. had targeted Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany for surveillance for several years.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the fiercest defenders of American 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.”
Ms. Feinstein said her committee would be conducting a “major review” of the intelligence programs.
According to administration and Congressional officials, the White House has told Ms. Feinstein that President Obama is poised to order the N.S.A. to stop eavesdropping on the leaders of American allies. On Tuesday, another supporter of the N.S.A., Speaker John A. Boehner, raised questions about its programs.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there needs to be review, there ought to be review, and it ought to be thorough,” Mr. Boehner said. “We’ve got obligations to the American people to keep them safe. We’ve got obligations to our allies around the world.”
“But having said that, we’ve got to find the right balance here,” he added. “And clearly, there’s — we’re imbalanced as we stand here.”
Shortly before the hearing began, protesters holding pink signs chastised Mr. Clapper and General Alexander, demanding they apologize to Ms. Merkel.
“It’s counterproductive to spy on our own allies, let alone our own citizens,” one of the protesters said. Mr. Rogers had one of the protesters removed a few minutes later.
Correction: October 29, 2013
An earlier version of the photo caption with this article misstated the title of Chris Inglis. He is the Deputy Director of the National Security Agency, not a deputy United States Attorney General.