National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander is operating in the one spot spies loathe more than anything: the limelight. Yet thanks to the recent furor over accusations that his agency eavesdropped on key European leaders, that's exactly where the four-star general is trapped.
Alexander has been hammered over media reports, based on information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the agency has tracked the phone calls of millions of ordinary citizens in Western Europe for more than a decade.
Then the German media reported that some of those calls belonged to world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key U.S. ally, and international outrage over NSA foreign surveillance programs amped to deafening levels.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper told Congress that the U.S. has spied on foreign leaders for decades — and he suspects those countries are eavesdropping on U.S. officials. But neither he nor Alexander has said if Merkel was a target.
The NSA denies that Alexander ever discussed with President Obama any surveillance operation against the chancellor. The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama learned the agency intercepted her calls during an internal inquiry conducted over the summer.
The White House won't comment directly on the issue. So for now, Alexander and his agency are the main scapegoats for the embarrassing episode.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president has “full confidence” in the NSA and its director. But he added the administration understands that "extraordinary technological advances" have broadened the scope of surveillance programs and that the president was committed to reviewing them to better balance security and privacy interests.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., has defended the NSA's foreign snooping policy, saying it has been misreported or misunderstood.
“I think the bigger news story here would be ... if the United States intelligence services weren’t trying to collect information that would protect U.S. interests both home and abroad," he told CNN.
He added that reports in France about the NSA's monitoring of millions of phone calls in the country were "100 percent wrong."
Alexander told Rogers' committee he would prefer to "take the beatings than to give up a program that would result in this nation being attacked." And those beatings have come often, including from Merkel, who has complained to the White House about the allegations.
The Spanish government summoned the U.S. ambassador to discuss allegations that the NSA spied on more than 60 million phone calls in the country — in one month alone.
Although Alexander has volunteered to step down early next year, the controversy likely will linger in the minds of foreign leaders.
"There has been some diminution of our diplomatic relationships across the world, naive or not," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., a member of the House intelligence panel. "That is just a fact."