This puts quite a different spin on last week’s question about possible perjury by the Director of National Intelligence after the exposure of the NSA’s PRISM and BLARNEY programs, doesn’t it? While we didn’t necessarily assume that Senator Ron Wyden’s question came out of the blue to James Clapper in March – Wyden has long professed public concern about the NSA and its activities — we didn’t know that Wyden had in fact warned Clapper a full day in advance that it would be asked. Not only that, but Wyden also offered Clapper an opportunity to amend the answer for the record afterward:
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) issued the following statement regarding statements made by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about collection on Americans. Wyden is a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“One of the most important responsibilities a Senator has is oversight of the intelligence community. This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions. When NSA Director Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence. So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer. Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives.”
Wyden suggests strongly that he will pursue an investigation into possible perjury and/or obstruction, perhaps involving both Clapper and Keith Alexander, based on Alexander’s similar denial given the year before. Clapper tried to defend himself yesterday, but if this is the best he can do, he’s going to need a really good attorney:
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is really struggling to explain why he told Congress in March (see video above) that the National Security Agency does not intentionally collect any kind of data on millions of Americans. His latest take: It’s an unfair question, he said, like “When are you going to stop beating your wife?” And it seems to depend on the meaning of “collect.”
“I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying ‘no,'” Clapper told NBC News on Sunday.
A newly revealed NSA program, however, in which the agency secretly vacuumed up the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers seems to fit the definition of both “data” and “millions of Americans.”
Last week, Clapper said his “no” meant that NSA analysts don’t read Americans’ emails. Some have noted that could explain his earlier answer because “collect” has a precise meaning in intelligence-gathering circles, and it’s along those lines.
On Sunday, Clapper elaborated: “This has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too cute by half. But it is—there are honest differences on the semantics of what—when someone says ‘collection’ to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him.”
Frankly, that’s bunk. Wyden’s question was plain, and the meaning clear — and Clapper had a 24-hour head start to clarify the meaning of any terms used. That appears to be the point of Wyden’s statement today. Clapper could just as easily have said, “That question touches on NSA capabilities that should be discussed in closed session, and I would be glad to answer your questions at that point.” Eric Holder managed to give that answer to Mark Kirk on an unrelated manner, and even though it raised eyebrows, it didn’t amount to lying to Congress — which is still a felony even if no oath was taken at the testimony.
Wyden has also joined a bipartisan coterie of Senators proposing a new law that forces FISA court decisions to be released publicly, in order for Americans to have some check on the surveillance state:
Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), accompanied by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Mark Begich (D-AK), Al Franken (D-MN), Jon Tester (D-MT), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), introduced a bill that would put an end to the “secret law” governing controversial government surveillance programs. This bill would require the Attorney General to declassify significant Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing Americans to know how broad of a legal authority the government is claiming to spy on Americans under the PATRIOT Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said. “There is plenty of room to have this debate without compromising our surveillance sources or methods or tipping our hand to our enemies. We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law.”
“This bipartisan amendment establishes a cautious and reasonable process for declassification consistent with the rule of law,” Lee said. “It will help ensure that the government makes sensitive decisions related to surveillance by applying legal standards that are known to the public. Particularly where our civil liberties are at stake, we must demand no less of our government.” …
“It is impossible for the American people to have an informed public debate about laws that are interpreted, enforced, and adjudicated in complete secrecy,” Wyden said. “When talking about the laws governing Intelligence operations, the process has little to no transparency. Declassifying FISA Court opinions in a form that does not put sources and methods at risk will give the American people insight into what government officials believe the law allows them to do.”
Especially when high-ranking executive branch officials lie to Congress about their activities.