The Director of National Intelligence has admitted that, in hindsight, the US intelligence community would have been smarter to disclose some details about how telephone records belonging to millions of Americans have been collected for years.
Perhaps more than any other Obama administration official, James Clapper has been the target of the most criticism, sarcasm, and outright fury since Edward Snowden leaked a trove of classified National Security Agency documents. He has staunchly defended the government’s interpretation of section 215 of the Patriot Act, under which it argues that secret collection of phone data is legal.
Now, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Clapper appears to have admitted that many of the problems currently plaguing intelligence community are self-inflicted and could have been avoided.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will,” Clapper said Monday. “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.”
The director went on to say that the Snowden leaks has been a painful learning experience, adding that the ongoing public debate about security vs. privacy would not be going on had the government been forthright with the American people after the terrorist attacks on September 11.
“What did us in here, what worked against us was this shocking revelation,” he said. “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.”
Clapper was a prominent target of critics of domestic surveillance and the press at large because of his claim at a congressional hearing months before the Snowden leak that the government does not collect information on millions of Americans. The response to that question, posed by longtime NSA opponent Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore), has led legislators and privacy advocates calling on Obama to fire Clapper and reform the surveillance apparatus.
Since his embarrassing misstep was first revealed Clapper has made public scores of documents and opinions written by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has consistently authorized the phone collection program. He told The Daily Beast those pages are proof that Section 215 is not an unchecked imposition on Americans’ civil liberties.
“For me it was not some massive assault on civil liberties and privacy because of what we actually do and the safeguards that are put on this,” he said. “To guard against perhaps these days a low probability but a very (high) impact thing if it happens…I buy fire insurance ever since I retired, the wife and I bought a house out here and we buy fire insurance every years. Never had a fire. But I am not gonna quit buying my fire insurance, same kind of thing.”
Clapper’s admission Monday that national security officials would have been better served to be more open about domestic snooping was welcomed by his usual critics. Ben Wizner, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project who also serves as legal counsel to Edward Snowden, said the director’s comments are fair.
“If Clapper is suggesting that the American people should have been consulted before the NSA engaged in a mass phone call tracking program, I empathetically agree,” he told the Daily Beast. “Whether we would have consented to that at the time will never be known, we are now having a debate in Congress and in the courts that we should have had then.”
As for why Clapper told a congressional hearing that the NSA was not collecting data on Americans, the intel chief says he “misunderstood” the question.