National Intelligence Director Continues to Maximize Untruthfulness About NSA Surveillance


Office of the DNI

During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last March, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper responded, "No, sir….not wittingly." As Scott Shackford noted last Friday, that response seems—how should we put it?—inaccurate in light of recent revelations about the NSA's surveillance activities. Clapper's response may be consistent with NSA data mining under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the targets of which are supposed to be foreigners located in other countries. When the NSA "incidentally" picks up information about Americans through its PRISM program, that presumably does not count as doing so "wittingly." But when the NSA uses Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act to demand the phone records of all Verizon customers, it is knowingly and deliberately collecting data on millions of Americans. Last week Clapper said he nevertheless stands by what he told Wyden. "What I said, " he told National Journal, "was the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails." Except that is not what he said. Here is the entire exchange with Wyden, which you can watch at the end of this post:

Wyden: This is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer, because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on.

Last summer the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, "the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false."

The reason I'm asking the question is, having served on the [intelligence] committee now for a dozen years, I don't really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

Notice that Wyden asked about "any type of data at all," which obviously would include records indicating the numbers people call, the timing and length of their conversations, and their location during the calls. Neither Wyden nor Clapper said anything about email. In fact, according to the transcript, the word was not uttered once during the entire hearing.

In an interview with NBC News on Saturday, Clapper said Wyden's question was "not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no," so "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful [sic] manner by saying no." He added, "This has to do, of course, [with] somewhat of a semantic [point], perhaps some would say too cute by half. But there are honest differences on the semantics. When someone says 'collection' to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him."

Today Wyden responded to Clapper's defense:

One of the most important responsibilities a Senator has is oversight of the intelligence community. This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren't getting straight answers to direct questions. When NSA Director Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence. So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper's office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer. Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives. 

Wyden is being charitable. Clapper did not merely fail to provide "straight answers to direct questions." His Clintonian resort to an idiosyncratic definition of a commonly used word cannot disguise the fact that he deliberately misrepresented the facts. What's that called again?