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NSA has 6,000 people deployed around the world, and 20 were killed in support of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terrorism, he said.

Globally, counterterrorism casualties continue to climb, Gen. Alexander said, with 2012 producing the highest toll with more than 15,000 people killed. In October alone, 2,336 people were killed in attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria.

“And yet, there has not been a mass casualty here in the U.S. since 2001,” he said of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“That’s not by luck. They didn’t stop hating us; they didn’t say that they were going to just forgive this. They continue to try. It is the great members in the intelligence community, our military, our law enforcement that have stood up and said, ‘This is our job and we do it with our partners and our allies.’ And it has been a great partnership.”

The four-star general, who has announced he is retiring after eight years at NSA, said defending the spying programs before Congress is better than “having given them up and have our nation or our allies be attacked and people killed.”

Stewart A. Baker, former NSA general counsel, who testified later Wednesday was more blunt. In written testimony, he denounced the anti-U.S. campaign to limit spying that he called “the greatest threat to the country’s security.”

“That is the current campaign by Glenn Greenwald and others who control the Snowden documents to cause the greatest damage to the United States and its intelligence capabilities,” Mr. Baker said.

The disclosures put the Obama administration in “a defensive crouch” as foreign governments demand concessions on U.S. spying that are being considered by the White House.

Mr. Baker said “President Obama seems genuinely embarrassed and unwilling to defend the National Security Agency.”

The European outcry over U.S. spying on its leaders is “hypocrisy,” he added.

France is engaged in large-scale international monitoring, and German leader Angela Merkel mildly spoke out against China for penetrating her computer but took greater issue with reported NSA intercepts of her cellphone.

“There were no calls for sanctions or agreements to put an end to China’s notorious hacking campaign,” Mr. Baker said.

“Domestic and international forces are pushing the United States toward a new understanding of how to govern our intelligence capabilities,” Mr. Baker said.

“If we make the wrong decisions in the next few months, our intelligence capabilities may be handicapped for a generation — or until some disaster reveals our errors in stark relief.”

Bill Gertz can be reached at @BillGertz.