Before Edward Snowden leaked a number of NSA documents through The Guardian and The Washington Post, some members of Congress who knew something was up was pushing the intelligence community to come clean. One of its first targets was Intelligence Director James Clapper who said that the NSA doesn’t collect data on “millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” As it turns out, he lied.
If you’ve been following the news over the past month, you’ll know that the NSA collects data on “millions or hundreds of millions of Americans” in its quest to investigate terrorism. Now, the NSA doesn’t always use this “incidental data” that it collects, but it still collects it. The revelation directly contradicts the statement Clapper gave to Congress earlier this year.
So, we know that Clapper lied to Congress. What’s he going to do about it? He’s going to apologize. In an open letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Clapper admits that his statement was “clearly erroneous” because he forgot the Patriot Act existed.
Here’s the relevant section of his response:
“In light of Senator Wyden’s reference to “dossiers” and faced with the challenge of trying to give an unclassified answer about our intelligence collection activities, many of which are classified, I simply didn’t think of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Instead, my answer addressed collection of the content of communications. I focused in particular on Section 702 of FISA, because we had just been through a year-long campaign to seek reauthorization of this provision and had had many classified discussions about it, including with Senator Wyden. That is why I added a comment about “inadvertent” collection of U.S. person information, because that is what happens under Section 702 even though it is targeted at foreigners.
That said, I realized later that Senator Wyden was asking about Section 215 metadata collection, rather than content collection. Thus, my response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize. While my staff acknowledged the error to Senator Wyden’s staff soon after the hearing, I can now openly correct it because the existence of the metadata collection program has been declassified.
Next month will mark for me 50 years of service to this country, virtually all of it in intelligence. In the last 20 of those years, I have appeared before Congressional hearings and briefings dozens of times, and have answered thousands of questions, either orally or in writing. I take all such appearances seriously and prepare rigorously for them. But mistakes will happen, and when I make one, I correct it.”
In short, Clapper says that he didn’t so much as lie, as he just didn’t understand the question. It’s an honest mistake, but it just seems a little too convenient when dealing with the NSA. I mean, this is the same agency that was caught lying on a fact sheet that it recently published on its Web site detailing its spy programs. It’s also the same agency whose director flat out lied to Congress last year saying that it didn’t have the capability to spy on every American – a claim made false by last month’s revelations.
Of course, lying to Congress under oath is a serious offense. Even if it was just a “mistake,” it doesn’t excuse the fact that Clapper and the NSA at large have been misleading Congress for years.
As expected, some members of Congress aren’t very happy with Clapper. Rep. Justin Amash tweeted his dissatisfaction with the Intelligence director in late June:
Still waiting for DNI Clapper to resign. He lied under oath & should be prosecuted. Where is U.S. government's commitment to Rule of Law?
— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) June 23, 2013
As for Sen. Rand Paul, he echoed Snowden’s father in saying that history will decide who’s the real law breaker:
“Mr. Clapper lied in Congress in defiance of the law in the name of security. Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy. So, I think there will be a judgment, because both of them broke the law, and history will have to determine.”
For now, it looks like nothing will happen to Clapper. Besides, some members of Congress have bigger fish to fry – the NSA itself. Sen. Wyden and 26 other senators have joined forces to demand more transparency from the agency. We can only hope that these recent revelations convince the agency to be a bit more truthful going forward.
[h/t: The Hill]