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October 29th, 2013
05:29 PM ET

Rep. Schiff: Obama not knowing about, or lying about alleged Merkel wiretap equally bad

The House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon questioned U.S. spy chiefs about accusations that the National Security Agency has tapped not only the phone calls of millions of Americans, but those of top U.S. allies.

Tuesday's hearing, billed as a discussion of potential changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, comes amid claims, reported last week by German magazine Der Spiegel, that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone.

Asked at the hearing if allies are guilty of the same sort of thing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, "Absolutely."

"It would be naive to presume that they are not very active in trying to collect on us, even though we are allies. It does happen," said Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, member of the House Intelligence Committee.

But Schiff said he is concerned about the potential wiretapping of allied leaders, "and the damage it is doing to our reputation, and the damage that it may do to cooperation that we need from them in pursuing terrorism cases."

"There is a real cost," said Schiff.

Asked which is more disturbing, that Obama knew Merkel's phone was tapped and was not forthright about the program, or that Obama did not knowing at all, Schiff said, "Either way you have it, it is a problem for the United States."

"It is a problem for the president's relationship with the chancellor if this turns out to be accurate. There's no good answer because there is no good outcome here either way," said Schiff.

"The president has indicated this is not consistent with our values, and my guess is that while he may not say as an absolute it won't happen again, there would have to be extraordinary circumstances to justify any kind of a tap on a foreign leader of an allied nation," said Schiff.

The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, has been a defender of the NSA, but now says she is opposed to spying on U.S. allies, and is demanding a review of all surveillance programs. Schiff echoes her call.

"There has to be a real discussion about the intelligence community's obligation under law ... to inform Congress of significant intelligence activities like these, that have such tremendous blow back potential," said Schiff, who adds that in light of recent allegations, he is not confident Congress is getting full briefings.

The White House, NSA, and the Director of National intelligence have repeatedly said that there is congressional oversight of U.S. surveillance programs. Yet Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he was unaware of these latest allegations that the U.S. is spying on its allies.

"If this is true, it's certainly not something I was made aware of. I would be surprised if many of the other intelligence committee members were made aware of it," said Schiff.

"Congress should be, along with the executive, weighing is it worth the risk? Are we gaining such great insights that we can't gain other ways, that we should undertake these operations?" said Schiff. "We need a much better level of dialogue and discussion and oversight."

For more of our interview with Congressman Adam Schiff, watch the video above.

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