During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the intelligence czar [James Clapper] if the NSA gathers “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”
“No, sir,” Clapper responded. “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly [i.e., with full awareness of what one is doing].”
Clapper’s response appears to contradict recent revelations about the agency’s large scale phone records collection program, first reported on by the Guardian last week. However, during the NBC interview, Clapper said Wyden’s question did not have a straightforward answer.
“I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked– “When are you going to start– stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not– answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no,” Clapper said in the interview, which aired Sunday. “So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying ‘no’.”
Clapper said his remarks also reflected his definition of “collection,” which he said has a specific meaning in an intelligence context.
“What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers– of those books in that metaphorical library– to me, collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it,” he said.
In a Tuesday statement, Wyden said he had notified Clapper of his question in advance, and had given his office a chance to give a “straight answer” after the March hearing.
The NSA has spent many billions of dollars to collect their haystack and look for needles in it. That’s about as “witting” as it gets.
IMHO, there has never been a clearer case of the federal crime of lying to Congress. But, like other loyal servants of the elite, Clapper will be promoted rather than prosecuted.
Update: Derek Khanna has an op-ed at Politix in which he calls for Clapper’s impeachment:
Lying to Congress is an extremely serious offense, although few have been found guilty. Roger Clemens was indicted for lying to Congress (but ultimately found innocent of perjury). Many of the cases of individuals convicted of lying to Congress arose from Watergate, including President Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell, and Nixon’s Chief of staff, H.R Haldeman.
Executive officials can be impeached for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” As a non-criminal matter, there are serious grounds to argue that lying to Congress is among the most severe potential “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Under the Constitution, Congress has a few major roles: to pass legislation and to oversee the Executive branch. The Intelligence Committee was specifically created to oversee the Intelligence Community in the wake of systemic abuses from the 1960s and 1970s. This oversight of intelligence organizations is critical to protecting average citizens from abuses that were well documented, including the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. But this oversight process can only work if members of the Executive branch are honest with Congress. Members of the Executive branch know this, and these high stakes are precisely why in confrontations between the Executive and the Legislative branch, sometimes Executive branch officials try to refuse to appear before Congress – citing executive privilege.
Clapper’s statement appears to have misled the relevant Congressional Committee, and more importantly, misled Members of Congress who don’t receive the information that the Intelligence Committee receives. Ultimately these statements misled the general public. This obfuscation of the truth inhibited the Intelligence Committee from performing proper oversight, which is the primary role of the Intelligence Committee. There is little point in having an oversight committee for intelligence if members of the intelligence community can simply lie when asked questions before a hearing.
The Director of National Intelligence of the United States sat before Congress with his bare face hanging out and said “no,” when he knew the truth to be “yes.” But, appallingly, many journalists and U.S. officials are calling for the prosecution of the man who exposed the truth on that matter, Edward Snowden.