James Clapper, director of the National Intelligence Program, apologized this week for lying to Congress in testimony he gave in March at a hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
That was before Edward Snowden, before the Internal Revenue Service scandal had reached its full burn, before the Justice Department’s Associated Press phone surveillance scandal, before PRISM. The public didn’t even have one eye open when Clapper testified three months ago.
But Clapper has found himself revising his testimony in the court of public opinion ever since the bottomless volcano of spy scandals started belching, terrorizing Americans who’d remained peacefully unaware they’d been living in the Federal government’s dangerous surveillance shadow.
He pulled a Bill Clinton in June, telling NBC’s Andrea Mitchell his earlier testimony represented “what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner” of answering a direct question from Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on whether the National Security Agency (NSA) engaged in a data collection dragnet that sweeps information on millions of Americans.
But this week, Clapper went from “least untruthful” to “I’m sorry.” He wrote Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and posted the letter’s contents on the National Intelligence website Tuesday, apologizing for making “clearly erroneous” statements in denying Congress any informed oversight of the NSA’s immensely broad citizen spying program. He justified the willed omission (i.e., lie) by saying he “simply didn’t think of Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” which enables expanded government spying through use of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time. In light of Seantor 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 of 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.
Take a look at the relevant portion of Clapper’s testimony below, which begins 22 seconds into the video:
Remember, Clapper had three months to figure out a way to backtrack, and this letter is what he came up with. Feinstein’s only response to the letter was to say Clapper’s statement “speaks for itself.”
And, since Clapper brought it up, metadata collection is ostensibly too benign, too impersonal, too incapable of revealing to the government any inkling of the intimate aspects of an individual’s life. If you believe his explanation, it was simply too inconsequential a component of the NSA’s surveillance power (both technical and legal) for Clapper to call to mind under direct questioning. In short, metadata can’t tell you much, he’s arguing.