Clapper: Maybe we should have been honest about phone-data tracking, huh?

James Clapper has regrets.Veteran national-security reporter Eli Lake interviewed the Director of National Intelligence eleven months after Clapper lied in testimony to the US Senate about the NSA’s surveillance of American communications, and eight months after the lie got exposed. Now Clapper offers a what-if to Lake, musing that it might have been better to be honest about the NSA’s activities from the beginning:

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Clapper said the problems facing the U.S. intelligence community over its collection of phone records could have been avoided. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will. Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11—which is the genesis of the 215 program—and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap, we need to make sure this never happens to us again, so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards… We wouldn’t have had the problem we had,” Clapper said.

“What did us in here, what worked against us was this shocking revelation,” he said, referring to the first disclosures from Snowden. If the program had been publicly introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans would probably have supported it. “I don’t think it would be of any greater concern to most Americans than fingerprints. Well people kind of accept that because they know about it. But had we been transparent about it and say here’s one more thing we have to do as citizens for the common good, just like we have to go to airports two hours early and take our shoes off, all the other things we do for the common good, this is one more thing.”

Since the first Snowden revelations in June, Clapper has declassified reams of material relating to the 215 program, including opinions and warrants signed by the top secret court that approves domestic snooping. But he has not publicly acknowledged until now his thoughts that the initial secrecy surrounding the program was ill-considered.

Like many who get caught in a public lie, the regrets can be rather self-serving, as Lake points out:

It’s a bit of an adjustment in Clapper’s public stance. The intelligence chief wrote in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, that the leak of the 215 program along with others “will do significant damage to the Intelligence Community’s ability to protect the nation.” (Of course, Snowden leaked more than the broad outlines of the program that Clapper said he would’ve liked disclosed.)

Let’s take a step back to March 2013, shall we? Wyden didn’t put Clapper on the spot because Clapper was being honest in classified briefings. This was a program that Wyden apparently knew was in operation, but which Clapper wouldn’t discuss even in closed session. That was the reason why Wyden both asked the question in a public hearing and gave Clapper 24-hour’s notice that it would be asked — as a pressure point to get the head of American intelligence to come clean at least in a classified briefing.

So yes, now Clapper can publicly muse on the notion that full disclosure might have prevented a lot of the nonsense that Clapper and his team produced over the years, and which blew up in his face over the last few months. It’s not a disinterested fallback position either, as the rest of the interview shows. Clapper still defends the 215 program as both constitutional and effective, even though the administration’s own select panel concluded the opposite on both points after its investigation. Another group reached the same conclusion about the effectiveness of the 215 program last month.

Clapper wants to keep the 215 program, and so does Barack Obama. They aren’t regretting anything enough to stop the collection and use of this data, at least not in the short term. The offering of regrets at this stage seems designed more to keep the status quo than to promise reform in the future.

And notice that no one’s been fired in this scandal, either.