WASHINGTON -- It is "unrealistic" for the White House to know about reported United States eavesdropping on foreign leaders, and perfectly reasonable for intelligence officials to have neglected to tell Congress, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper argued Tuesday.
Clapper was among a clutch of officials who trouped to Capitol Hill to testify to Congress about the ongoing surveillance programs revealed over the summer by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. But their appearance came after revelations that the U.S. monitored the phones of other leaders, including allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Clapper suggested such activities were not particularly remarkable and didn't rise to the significance meriting explicit notification to Congress or the White House. He said trying to figure out what foreign leaders are thinking is a mainstay of his job.
“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,” Clapper told the House Intelligence Committee, without confirming the specific reports of spying. “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."
When Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) suggested that surveillance of foreign leaders leaders was significant enough that Congress should be informed, Clapper disagreed, and said the intelligence community has told lawmakers what it is supposed to.
"We think by and large we met, complied with, the spirit and the intent of the law. Not to say we couldn't do more," Clapper told Schiff, ranking spying on a friendly national leader as about the same as monitoring any other "selector" or source.
"The fact that we don't necessarily report each and every selector, and that we're dependent on the general rubric of leadership intentions, I guess that's something we could discuss as to whether that level of detail is required in the form of congressional notification," Clapper said.
Schiff seemed incredulous that Clapper and company would not inform Congress.
"I'm not perfectly sure what to make of that answer," Schiff said. "I think that if you're tapping the phone line of a foreign leader, an ally, that is a significant intelligence activity that should be reported to the committee."
Schiff added that the significance was readily apparent in the international reaction to the reports. "I would certainly think that an intelligence activity that we undertake that has the potential for the kind of blowback we're seeing today would be something you would want to report in considerable detail to the committee," Schiff said.
Clapper, however, said that if the intelligence community were to use potential blowback as the barometer for deciding what to tell Congress, the threshold for what needs to be told to lawmakers would be lowered considerably.
In a similar vein, Clapper told Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) that it was not realistic that routine activities would be known in the White House.
"It's unlikely and unrealistic to think that every last detail about how a particular piece of information is gleaned through all the collection apparatus we have, be it HUMINT [human intelligence], imagery or SIGINT [signals intelligence], they would not necessarily know that level of detail," Clapper said.
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.