Sen. Wyden: Clapper didn’t give ‘straight answer’ on NSA programs

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the chief Democratic critics of the Obama administration's surveillance programs, said Tuesday that Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper didn't give a "straight answer" on NSA surveillance programs at a March hearing.

During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing Wyden asked Clapper whether the National Security Agency collects "any type of data at all on millions of Americans.” Clapper responded, "No, sir" -- a response that seems to run contrary to the revelations of the past week concerning the NSA's broad phone record collection efforts.

Wyden said in a statement Tuesday that he gave intelligence officials the courtesy they needed to give a "straight answer," but said they declined to give one.

"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. "Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures, and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives.”

Wyden's statement represents the latest ratcheting up in the controversy over the surveillance programs. Clapper's testimony -- and whether he lied -- has been the subject of some examination, particularly on cable news, but Wyden's suggestion breaks new ground and is particularly significant coming from a Democrat.

Wyden doesn't directly accuse Clapper of lying to or misleading senators, but suggests he should have been able to be more accurate.

Clapper sought to clarify his testimony during an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell on Saturday, saying he thought the question referred to more invasive efforts.

"I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no," Clapper said.

Clapper got a vote of confidence Sunday from the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Asked about the discrepancy between the disclosures and Clapper's testimony, Feinstein said Clapper is one of the most honest people she knows and suggested he misunderstood the question.

Wyden's argument is that Clapper knew the question was coming, so he should have had a more precise answer.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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