US spy chief defends spying on foreign leaders

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee on Oct 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Mr James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said seeking to d
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee on Oct 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Mr James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said seeking to discern the aims of foreign heads of state has long been a "basic tenet" for US spy agencies. -- PHOTO: AFP 

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The head of United States (US) intelligence said on Tuesday the country's spy agencies always try to learn the intentions of foreign leaders, but stopped short of confirming reports of eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Mr James Clapper, director of national intelligence, said seeking to discern the aims of foreign heads of state has long been a "basic tenet" for US spy agencies.

"As long as I've been in the intelligence business, 50 years, leadership intentions in whatever form that's expressed is kind of a basic tenet of what we are to collect and analyse," Mr Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee.

"It's invaluable to us to know where countries are coming from, what their policies are, how that would impact us across a whole range of issues," Mr Clapper said.

"So, and it isn't just leaders themselves, it's what goes on around them and the policies that they convey to their governments." Media leaks from former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden alleged the National Security Agency (NSA) has listened in on the communications of dozens of foreign leaders, including Mrs Merkel.

The revelation has created an uproar in Germany and across Europe amid conflicting reports as to when President Barack Obama allegedly learned or approved of the eavesdropping.

Mr Clapper was asked by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mr Mike Rogers, why US spy services tried to track the intentions of foreign leaders.

But the lawmaker did not refer to reports the National Security Agency was listening in on Germany's chancellor as well as other leaders from other friendly states.

Mr Rogers said the "best way" to determine a foreign leader's plans was "to somehow either get close to a foreign leader or actually get communications of the foreign leader," and asked Mr Clapper: "Would that be accurate?" And the spy chief replied: "Yes, it would."

Asked if America's allies have carried out espionage against the US, Mr Clapper said: "Absolutely." But another lawmaker, Mr Adam Schiff, said the spy services had a legal obligation to inform the intelligence committees in Congress of "significant" activities and he insisted that would apply to any spying on foreign leaders.

Mr Clapper appeared to disagree, saying the spy agencies were complying with the law by telling lawmakers about the guiding priorities of intelligence gathering, without specifying each source or "selector" to be tracked.

The chairman of the committee, Mr Rogers, later sharply rebuked Schiff and said panel members had access to large amounts of information from the NSA.