In a highly unusual move, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said Tuesday that he misspoke when he told a Congressional committee in March that the National Security Agency does not assemble dossiers on Americans. Clapper said at the time that the agency does not do so “wittingly”, but in a letter to the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Clapper admitted this statement was “erroneous”.
Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, has been quite vocal in his defense of the NSA’s now-public surveillance programs such as PRISM and the metadata collection program. In statements published shortly after the leak of classified documents by Edward Snowden about those collection efforts Clapper said that they both have been repeatedly authorized by Congress and the executive and judicial branches over the years. The collection of road swaths of Internet data under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act through PRISM is one of the aspects of the agency’s efforts that has many people worried.
“Activities authorized by Section 702 are subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Executive Branch, and Congress. They involve extensive procedures, specifically approved by the court, to ensure that only non-U.S. persons outside the U.S. are targeted, and that minimize the acquisition, retention and dissemination of incidentally acquired information about U.S. persons,” Clapper said in a statement.
But it’s Clapper statement before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March that has drawn the most attention. During that hearing Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper a pointed question about the NSA’s collection efforts on Americans.
“So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question, does the NSA collect any type of data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked.
“No sir,” Clapper said. “Not wittingly.”
That last word that has put Clapper in a tight spot. Critics have said Clapper was playing word games with his answer, but in his letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Clapper said he mistakenly thought that Wyden was asking him about intelligence collected under the authority of Section 702 of FISA rather than Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, which is used to authorize the metadata collection program.
“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,” Clapper said.
The admission by Clapper is an extraordinary move for any government official, let alone the DNI. Congress tends to take a dim view of false or misleading testimony. The question now is whether the members think the Clapper’s “erroneous” statement falls into either of those categories.