WASHINGTON (AFP) - The chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) said on Wednesday the United States (US) and European intelligence services needed to work together and put a row over spying behind them.
General Keith Alexander, director of the NSA, refused to confirm or deny media reports that his agency was eavesdropping on the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But he suggested that all governments - and not just the United States - were spying on foreign leaders, while calling for cooperation against terror and cyber-threats.
Mr Alexander cited comments from the former head of France's domestic intelligence agency, Bernard Squarcini, who has told French media that governments on both sides of the Atlantic are conducting espionage on each other.
"Because let's assume that Squarcini is right, everybody is spying on everybody, the real question is, what can really hurt our countries?" he said at a cyber-security conference in Washington.
"We agree that it is terrorism and cyber (attacks). So the question from a policy perspective is, is there a better way to move forward?" he said.
"I think we should sit down (and talk)," Mr Alexander added.
Mr Alexander and the NSA have been at the center of a global furore set off by a series of bombshell leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who lifted the lid on the US government's far-reaching digital dragnet.
The NSA director spoke as German envoys held talks with US officials in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the allegations, including eavesdropping on Merkel's phone.
Mr Alexander said he had spent more than six years in Germany during his career in military intelligence and said America's relations with allied spy services were vital.
"I think this partnership with Europe is absolutely important," the four-star general said.
"But it has to do with eveybody coming to the table and let's put off all the sensationalism and say - is there a better way for our countries to work together?"
Mr Alexander made no apologies for the NSA's activities and reiterated his denial of reports, based on Snowden's leaks, that the secretive agency was scooping up millions of phone records from French and other European citizens.
His comments came after a French government spokesman voiced skepticism at Mr Alexander's explanation.
"The NSA director's denials don't seem likely," spokesman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said Wednesday after a French cabinet meeting.
"The perception that NSA is collecting 70 millions phone calls in France or Spain or Italy is factually incorrect," Mr Alexander said at the conference, which was organised by Bloomberg media group.
"This is actually countries working together to support military operations, collecting what they need to protect our forces in areas where we work together as nations.
"It has nothing to do with collection on Europe. Period."