President Donald Trump claimed that former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “famously got caught lying to Congress” in a Thursday tweet.
When he was the Director of National Intelligence under President Barack Obama, Clapper denied that NSA conducted mass surveillance of Americans in a testimony to Congress. Months later, Edward Snowden made headlines by revealing the existence of mass NSA surveillance on millions of Americans. The classified and high stakes nature of the NSA’s national security apparatus in question, along with the public setting of the hearing, makes it difficult to conclude if Clapper was “lying” or not.
The incident Trump referred to in his tweet took place during a March 12, 2013 hearing of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. The unclassified hearing was intended as an opportunity for intelligence leaders like Clapper, then FBI Director Robert Mueller, and then CIA Director John Brennan to brief the committee on ongoing threats to the U.S.
At one point during the hearing, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon requested a “yes or no answer” when he asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?”
Clapper replied, “No, sir.” Wyden followed up, “It does not?” Clapper then replied, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.” Wyden then thanked Clapper for his answer and said he would have “additional questions… in writing on that point.”
Just two months later in May 2013, Edward Snowden – then employed by an NSA contractor in Hawaii – abruptly fled to Hong Kong.
Snowden then disclosed thousands of classified and confidential NSA documents to journalists and in doing so revealed a vast NSA spying apparatus on millions of Americans by the NSA. The exact size of the leak or number of documents leaked by Snowden remains unclear. Snowden eventually fled Hong Kong and has since lived in asylum in Russia.
It is not clear if Clapper sought to deliberately mislead the public or simply sought to preserve the confidential nature of an operation too complex to be revealed in a “yes or no” answer. It is clear from a statement by Wyden that Clapper did not correct his statements in subsequently written exchanges between Wyden’s and Clapper’s staffs.
About a month after Snowden’s flight and NSA disclosure, Clapper sent a letter to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, then Chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence. Clapper sought to admit his “mistakes,” apologize, and “set the record straight.”
Clapper, in his letter, claimed that he mistakenly answered Wyden’s question about surveillance on Americans with a response addressing aspects of a separate surveillance apparatus geared towards foreigners. (Clapper claimed in the letter that he had testified that NSA may have only “inadvertently” spied on Americans, while the real aim was to spy on foreigners.)
Clapper’s letter, moreover, underscored the “challenge of trying to give an unclassified answer about our intelligence collection activities, many of which are classified.” He went on to make note that he only then could “openly correct” himself as the NSA surveillance operation had then been declassified.
Clapper did not provide an accurate answer to a specific question about NSA spying. Claims about Clapper’s testimony, however, warrant intense scrutiny because of the fact that Clapper was effectively asked to confirm details about a high profile, classified operation for national security and anti-terror purposes. Trump’s claim that Clapper “got caught lying to Congress” is thus unsubstantiated.
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