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A commentator on Fox News had claimed that GCHQ had carried out the activity on America's behalf, but Mr Ledgett said the claim showed "a complete lack of understanding in how the relationship works".

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Each side, he said, was prohibited from asking the other partner to carry out acts that they were prohibited from doing. He also said the huge risks to the UK in carrying out such an act would completely outweigh any benefits. It would be epically stupid," he told me. Mr Ledgett's comments came in a wide-ranging - and long-scheduled - interview in his office at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade.

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He acknowledged that these were unusual times when it came to the political maelstrom surrounding America's intelligence agencies and their relationship with the new administration. Our job is to speak truth to power," he emphasised.

The origins of much of the tension lie in the assessment by the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the presidential election, and the subsequent reaction from Donald Trump. Mr Ledgett said the evidence of Russian involvement was "extraordinarily strong" and "irrefutable" and that the NSA had played a key role in establishing the case. There has been speculation that Russia will interfere in upcoming European elections, but the NSA deputy director said it was hard for him to talk about any evidence supporting that.

There has been a shift towards more aggressive action in cyberspace in recent years - from Russia but also other states - with some commentators claiming that "cyber war" is breaking out. Low-intensity conflict rather than war is a better description, Mr Ledgett said.

The problems in attributing attacks and the lower barriers for entry mean that this trend may well continue, though. The US last week indicted a group of Russian hackers as part of a broader strategy of trying to develop layered deterrence. Chinese and Iranian hackers have been indicted in the past.

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The spread of internet-connected devices in the home is another concern. Last week there were claims that the CIA - along with Britain's MI5 - had found vulnerabilities in some "smart" TV sets which allowed them to be turned into bugging devices. Mr Ledgett emphasised that the mission of the NSA was to focus on foreign intelligence and not domestic.

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And any vulnerabilities that the agency sought to leave in place to exploit for intelligence gathering needed to be approved by other government agencies. That's not what we do at all. He acknowledged that the debate around the NSA's power was healthy, but said the way it came about was bad, referring to the Edward Snowden revelations.

He said that while he would not point to specific terrorist attacks or deaths as a result of disclosures, the NSA had seen one thousand "entities" such as terrorist groups or foreign military units which had tried to change behaviour to avoid surveillance. Mr Ledgett is due to step down in the coming months after a year career in national security. Twenty-nine of those years were spent at the NSA, where he ended up as its most senior civilian.

He acknowledged that the current environment - with the intelligence agencies drawn into political debate - was unprecedented. Trump denies claiming UK behind 'wiretap'. Did Obama wiretap Trump Tower?

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A peek behind the curtain at GCHQ. GCHQ had also dismissed the allegation as nonsense. Related Topics.

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More on this story. Published 17 March Published 20 March Published 8 June

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