NSA PRISM Program: Did Intelligence Director James Clapper Lie to Congress?


Back in March, before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, National Intelligence director James Clapper informed the committee that the government was not “wittingly” collecting information on millions of Americans. In the last week, a series of reports exposing NSA surveillance efforts have hit the airwaves, unmistakably exposing Clapper’s comments at the hearing as severely misleading. While Clapper is holding onto some basis of interpretation as a viable defense, it is clear in retrospect that Clapper lied to or at the very least misled the committee (quite wittingly), and if Congress is interested in maintaining any credibility, they should see to it that he’s removed from office.

Give credit to Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.). As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee he was briefed on intelligence operations, yet given the secretive nature of these operations, he was forced to keep quiet on specific details. Nevertheless, Wyden and his colleague in the Senate, Mark Udall (D-Colo.), sounded alarms on the intelligence gathering undertaken by intelligence agencies. These details are important because they point to the conclusion that when Wyden asked specifically about data collection, he was asking a question that he knew the answer to. Wyden was putting Clapper on the spot, curious to see what sort of reply he would get.

What really adds to the grievous nature of Clapper’s statements is that he had several opportunities to further clarify his remarks on the subject. Senator Wyden asked Clapper twice if in fact the NSA collects data on millions of Americans, and the national intelligence chief initially responded with a brazen no. When pressed further, gave the infamous “not wittingly” answer. Wyden actually provided intelligence officials with the opportunity to elucidate comments made at the hearing afterwards, but no one took him up on his offer. In fact, Wyden had submitted questions to be asked to Clapper before the hearing, including questions about data collection. Either Clapper did not get around to reading the document, or he just did not care enough to be bothered with accuracy at a Senate Intelligence hearing.

While these facts don’t necessarily paint a rosy picture for Clapper, his comments this week do not appear to do so either. Speaking to Andrea Mitchell this past Sunday, when asked about the validity of his comments at the hearing, Clapper responded by telling her of his take on the word “collection,” and how it did not comport with what the NSA was actually doing. This is sort of like telling your wife that when she asked you if you were cheating on her, you thought she was asking you if you were cheating on her in public. It does not matter how Clapper claims to have interpreted Wyden’s question. Every single person in that room, and 99.9% of human beings with some level of cognitive ability, understood what Wyden was asking, and the kind of answer he was looking for.

These facts speak poorly of Clapper. Lying to or misleading Congress, is a serious offense and ought to be treated as one. As Derek Khanna points out in his op-ed, Congress was performing oversight through these hearings, and Clapper’s testimony can certainly be categorized as “impeding congressional inquiry and investigation.” These committees are incredibly important in providing a check on potential executive abuses. If these hearings are producing lies, inaccuracies, or outright misleading statements, they might as well close shop. If the president is not willing to demand the resignation of Clapper, then Congress needs to step in and do something, because their very credibility is at stake.