By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News
The U.S. spy chiefs defended the NSA's data collection programs to a Congressional committee on Tuesday, saying the activities were lawful, aimed at foreign terrorists and saved lives.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned those calling for reform of the National Security Agency they must avoid “over-correcting.”
“We believe we have been lawful and that the rigorous oversight we’ve operated under has been effective,” Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee.
“We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes and we do not violate the law.”
Clapper conceded “mistakes have been made,” blaming them on human error or technical problems and said there has been an “erosion of trust in the in the intelligence community.”
But he said that as Congress begins the process of weighing legislation to overhaul how the NSA does business, it should be mindful of “over-correcting.”
“As Americans, we face an unending array of threats to our way of life. We need to sustain our ability to detect these threats,” he said.
Months of leaks about U.S. spying by former NSA and CIA contractor Edward Snowden are already “affecting our ability to conduct intelligence and keep our country safe,” he said.
NSA Director General Keith Alexander struck a similar note in his testimony, saying the NSA's programs keeps Americans safe.
“It is much more important for this county that we defend this country and take the beating than it for us to give up a program that would prevent this nation from being attacked,” he said.
Before the two testified, Rep. Charles Ruppersberger, D-Md., said more transparency and oversight of NSA activities may be needed but cautioned against going too far in limiting its reach.
“I shudder to think what connections would be missed if the program were eliminated,” he said.
Several protesters wearing clown-size sunglasses with the words "Stop Spying" scrawled on the lenses sat behind Alexander and Clapper. The committee had one of them removed from the room.
The hearing comes as the Obama administration is buffeted by near-daily revelations about the extent of U.S. spying efforts — including snooping on allies stemming from Snowden's disclosures.
President Obama reportedly has had to apologize to the presidents of France and Brazil and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As countries including Spain have threatened to take action against the U.S., Obama has promised a “complete review” of overseas spying operations.
“What we've seen over the last several years is their capacities continue to develop and expand, and that's why I'm initiating now a review to make sure that what they're able to do doesn't necessarily mean what they should be doing," Obama said Monday in a televised interview.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the White House has pledged that "collection on our allies will not continue" — although the administration has not gone that far.
As the White House coped with the international fallout, a bipartisan team of Congressmen introduced a bill to curb the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records under the Patriot Act.
Among those spearheading the legislation is Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., the main author of the Patriot Act, who said that while the post-9/11 bill has protected Americans, it has also been abused.
"Somewhere along the way, the balance between security and privacy was lost," he said in a statement.
"It’s now time for the judiciary committees to again come together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure the law is properly interpreted, past abuses are not repeated and American liberties are protected. Washington must regain Americans’ trust in their government."
The USA Freedom Act would require proof that phone data sought is relevant to an authorized investigation into international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities — and there is a link to a foreign power or agent. The government would also need court orders to search the communications of Americans collected during foreign intelligence operations.
A similar measure failed in the House in July.