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NSA angers Feinstein, one of its key allies in Congress

The secret spying on US allies abroad infuriated Sen. Feinstein.
Diane Feinstein
U.S. Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)(R) speaks with National Security Agency Director General Keith Alexander before his testimony at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 26, 2013.

The National Security Agency's spying on US allies abroad has drawn the ire of one of its key supporters in Congress.

California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee, sent out a statement Monday afternoon saying that Congress had not been "satisfactorily informed" of the NSA's activities and calling for a "total review of all intelligence programs."

In her statement, Feinstein said it was her "understanding" that until recently, President Barack Obama was kept in the dark about the NSA spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel. National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told reporters she would not "go into the details" of the administration's "private discussions" with Feinstein in her role as intelligence commitee chair.

On Tuesday, the NSA director and other spy chiefs will appear at a House Intelligence Committee hearing.

In addition to Merkel, Obama has also apologized recently to leaders in France and Brazil over NSA surveillance in those countries. Feinstein has been one of the NSA's most vocal supporters in Congress, frequently working to foil her colleagues' efforts to force the agency to be more transparent or curtail government surveillance powers prior to leaks facilitated by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Feinstein has defended many of the NSA's controversial activities, such as bulk collection of Americans' communications data, as necessary to protect the country from terrorism. While other legislators are set to introduce legislation reining in the NSA Tuesday, the Senate intelligence committee is set to markup a Feinstein authored bill that would preserve the NSA's bulk data collection program with, in Feinstein's words, additional "transparency and privacy protections."

“Unless the United States is engaged in hostilities against a country or there is an emergency need for this type of surveillance, I do not believe the United States should be collecting phone calls or emails of friendly presidents and prime ministers. The president should be required to approve any collection of this sort," Feinstein's statement reads. “The White House has informed me that collection on our allies will not continue, which I support. But as far as I’m concerned, Congress needs to know exactly what our intelligence community is doing. To that end, the committee will initiate a major review into all intelligence collection programs.”

The Obama administration is currently conducting its own review. In her statement to reporters, Hayden was non-committal about future spying on US allies, saying she would not comment "on assertions made" by Feinstein "about U.S. foreign intelligence activities."

A frequent criticism from Feinstein's colleagues in Congress is that the intelligence community did not keep legislators fully appraised of how they were using surveillance powers under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Feinstein has disagreed, saying the program is subject to "vigorous oversight" from Congress.

Feinstein's statement makes it clear that she hasn't changed her mind about the usefulness of the NSA's data collection program. But the fact that the chair of the Senate intelligence committee believes Congress was not properly informed about the NSA's spying activities raises the question of how Congress can be conducting "vigorous oversight" when it doesn't know "exactly what our intelligence community is doing."