US director of national intelligence James Clapper has sent a letter to senators in which he apologizes for providing “erroneous” information on NSA data collection, but the director is still under scrutiny for his inconsistent statements.
In late June, Clapper wrote a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee to correct his response to a question he was asked during a March 12 hearing. When asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) whether the National Security Agency “collected data on millions of Americans,” Clapper lied to Congress and said the NSA does not do this.
“No, sir, not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly,” he said in March. But after NSA leaker Edward Snowden revealed the NSA’s controversial surveillance programs in June, Clapper told NBC News that he gave the “least untruthful answer possible” at the hearing, and said the question he was asked was unfair. He said it was akin to being asked “when he was going to stop beating his wife.”
But now the national intelligence director is telling another story. In a failed attempt to minimize criticism against him, Clapper sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 21, stating that his “response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologize.” He claims that he misunderstood the original question.
“I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time,” he says in the letter, parts of which were first published by the Washington Post.
But rather than calm the firestorm revolving around his lie to Congress, the apology has just added fuel to the fire. Clapper’s latest allegation that he misunderstood the question contradicts what he said earlier about deliberately trying to provide the “least untruthful” answer.
Sen. Wyden on Monday said that Clapper’s office privately admitted that his answer to the NSA question was wrong, but did not publicly correct himself until June 21, after Snowden had already leaked the information. Additionally, Wyden claims that Clapper was given the question a full day ahead of time, so that he would be able to prepare his answer.
“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,” Wyden said in a statement published on his website, which indicates that Clapper could not possibly have been taken by surprise by the question.
Numerous lawmakers have criticized intelligence officials – including Clapper – for misleading them about NSA surveillance. A bipartisan group of 26 senators last week wrote to Clapper to complain that the Obama administration is relying on a “secret body of law” for its domestic surveillance programs.
“We are concerned that by depending on secret interpretations of the Patriot Act that differed from an intuitive reading of the statue, this program essentially relied for years on a secret body of law,” the lawmakers wrote. “This and misleading statements by intelligence officials have prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making, and will unfortunately undermine trust in government more broadly.”
Days before Clapper sent his apologetic letter, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also directly accused the intelligence director of lying and suggested that he may not be able to continue serving in his position.
Now Clapper is once again facing accusations of lying, with his apology contradicting his previous statement and information released by Sen. Wyden.