The Wyden-Clapper affair — a parable

February 2, 2014

The press is still after James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, for his statements in response to a question from Sen. Wyden (D OR) in March of last year. Wyden asked whether NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans, clearly talking about the then-undisclosed telephone metadata program. “Not wittingly,” Clapper responded, sliding into a discussion of the rules for inadvertent overseas collection of data about Americans.

CNN’s Jake Tapper asked President Obama on Friday whether he had concerns about Clapper’s answer. Tapper got the Presidential equivalent of a shrug:

“I think that Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded,” Obama said.

“His concern was that he had a classified program that he couldn’t talk about, and he was in an open hearing in which he was asked, he was prompted to disclose a program, and so he felt he was caught between a rock and a hard place.”

The press keeps wondering why Clapper’s response hasn’t wrecked his career. Maybe a parable will help.

Imagine that the Senate is preparing to confirm the nomination of a well-known woman to an important administration job.  The committee chairman loathes the nominee and her policies. But his investigators have turned up nothing against her – until they discover that she had an affair with a foreign national fifteen years ago, about a year before the birth of her only son.

The chairman calls the official into his office and confronts her with the evidence.

“It’s true,” she says. “It was a terrible mistake. I ended it almost immediately. Then I discovered I was pregnant. The biological father doesn’t know. Neither do my husband or my son.”

“This affair was as reckless as your policy judgments,” says the chairman. “The committee and the American people deserve to know your true character.”

“Please,” she pleads. “I will tell every member of the committee about it, and if they want to vote against my confirmation, so be it. But I beg you not to disclose this publicly. My son and husband will find out, and it will wreck their lives.”

“Oh, I won’t disclose it,” says the chairman. “You will. Because one of my first questions at the hearing will be ‘You and your husband have had one biological child together, is that correct?’ “

He smiles, “You can answer that question honestly and disclose the affair, or you can commit perjury. Your choice.”

At the hearing, the chairman asks the question.

“Yes,” the official answers, “My husband was there when I gave birth to my son, and he’s been there for us every day since.”

So here’s my question: Who is the hero of this story and who the villain?

If you can’t bring yourself to condemn the official or to praise the chairman, well, now you understand the executive branch’s view of the exchange between Clapper and Wyden.

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