Intelligence Director Lied about NSA Data Collection on Americans

James Clapper

The National Security Agency’s secret order to obtain the phone records of millions of American may put James Clapper, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, in the crosshairs of at least some members of Congress.

At issue is whether Clapper lied when he testified during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Clapper, who has served as DNI since August 2010, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

“No, sir,” replied Clapper in a rather squirrelly manner. Wyden pressed him. Clapper again denied that the NSA was collecting data on Americans, saying, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.”

Here’s the exchange:

In an interview with NBC News, Clapper said that he gave the “least untruthful” answer. “I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked [a] ‘when are you going to stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which not answerable necessarily by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, ‘No.’”

First of all, that’s a terrible analogy, especially in today’s political climate when there are scandal popping up everywhere. Americans are more distrusting, they do feel abused, and they want it to end. Also, are you actually serious? That’s supposed to be a legitimate answer?

So let’s get this straight. Clapper outright denies in March that the NSA is spying on millions of Americans, though he concedes that some people may “inadvertently” be caught up in the surveillance. Nearly three months later, Americans find out that the NSA has been secretly obtaining their phone records, even if they’re not suspected of any wrongdoing. There is no getting around it — Clapper lied.

Fred Kaplan seized took issue with Clapper on Tuesday at Slate, writing in no uncertain terms that President Obama should fire him:

the question was straightforward. It could be answered “yes” or “no,” and Clapper had to know this when he sat there in the witness chair. (Notice that, in his response to Mitchell, Clapper said he came up with the wife-beating analogy only “in retrospect.”) There are many ways that he could have finessed the question, as administration witnesses have done in such settings for decades, but Clapper chose simply to lie. “Truthful” and “untruthful” are not relative terms; a statement either is or isn’t; there’s no such thing as speaking in a “most truthful” or “least untruthful” manner.

Nor was this a spontaneous lie or a lie he regretted making. Wyden revealed in a statement today that he’d given Clapper advance notice that he would ask the question and that, after the hearing, he offered Clapper a chance to revise his answer. Clapper didn’t take the offer.

Clapper’s deceptions don’t stop there. Rambling on in his rationalization to Mitchell, he focused on Wyden’s use of the word “collect,” as in “Did the NSA collect any type of data … on millions of Americans?” Clapper told Mitchell that he envisioned a vast library of books containing vast amounts of data on every American. “To me,” he said, “collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.”
It is irrelevant whether Clapper really believes his definition of “collect” or made it up on the spot. Either way, this is a man who cannot be trusted to hold an honest discussion about these issues. If he lied about what he thinks “collect” means, he will lie about lots of things. If he really thinks the English language is this flexible, it is unwise to assume that any statement he makes means what it appears to mean.

This is more clear cut than Eric Holder’s lie during his testimony before Congress on the Justice Department targeting of reporters. Clapper and the Obama Administration will no doubt say that the program was secret, at least at the time, so his statements in an unclassifed hearing aren’t something that he can be held accountable for. Nevertheless, civil libertarians in Congress from both sides are going to have a field day with this.

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