­WASHINGTON - Concerned that public opinion here is shifting sharply against them, the embattled US intelligence leadership came out with the argument that American allies also spy on this country.

National Intelligence Director James Clapper told a Congressional hearing that nations do indeed spy on each other’s leaders and called it a longtime practice in the intelligence world.

The head of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, told the House Intelligence Committee that a surveillance sweep on phone records overseas that has prompted an anti-American backlash was carried out by European governments, not the US.

Though most of the programmes were enacted as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, US officials are nearly unanimous in saying they’re ready for a review to see if the scope of spying remains necessary.

On his part, Clapper defended the secret surveillance that sweeps up phone records and emails of millions of Americans as vital to protecting against terrorists. He played down European allies’ complaints about spying on their leaders, saying they do it, too. “That’s a hardy perennial,” Clapper told lawmakers.

Clapper said that during his 50 years working in intelligence it was “a basic tenet” to collect, whether by spying on communications or through other sources, confidential information about foreign leaders that reveals “if what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on.”

The committee chairman, Congressman Mike Rogers, a Republican, asked whether US allies had conducted the same type of espionage against American leaders. “Absolutely,” Clapper responded.

Asked about collection of phone records in France, Spain and elsewhere, the NSA’s director, Gen. Alexander, testified that the US did not collect European records, as was reported over the past week to anger across Europe.

Alexander said the US was given data by Nato partners as part of a program to protect military interests. He disputed that the program targeted European citizens, but he did not offer specifics. He called the reports “completely false.”

As for efforts at home, the intelligence leaders defended sweeping up records of US phone calls as necessary to combat terrorism. The Obama administration vigorously opposes efforts to curtail the internal spying programs that have angered some Americans.

Rogers urged lawmakers not to scrap an important investigative tool. “We can’t ask the FBI to find terrorists plotting an attack and then not provide them with the information they need,” he said.

Others on the panel predicted that the programmes will be overhauled. “There will be changes,” said Congressman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, of Clapper’s support for the intelligence programs, she said, “What I heard from you was a robust defense effectively of the status quo.”

The nation’s post-Sept. 11 surveillance programmes, revealed by classified documents provided by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, are under unprecedented scrutiny, especially after recent revelations that the NSA monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone and those of up to 34 other world leaders.

A bipartisan plan introduced Tuesday would end the NSA’s sweep of phone records, allowing the government to seek only records related to ongoing terror investigations. White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to take a position on the legislation, put forward by Congressman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., with a broad array of support. Carney said the administration is working with Congress on “appropriate reforms.”

Asked about the reports of eavesdropping on world leaders, President Barack Obama himself said in a Fusion network television interview that the U.S. government is conducting “a complete review of how our intelligence operates outside the country.” He declined to discuss specifics or say when he learned about the spying on allies.

Another U.S. official said Obama did not know the NSA was monitoring Merkel’s communications until after his visit to Germany in June. That official said information about the surveillance of foreign leaders emerged in the course of the White House’s broader review of spying programs, triggered by media reports based on documents leaked by Snowden.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and insisted on anonymity.

The White House says the United States isn’t currently listening to Merkel’s conversations and won’t do so in the future. Carney wouldn’t say whether the U.S. is monitoring the calls of other friendly leaders or whether Obama thinks that sort of surveillance of allies should go on.