“Intelligence officials have noted that the bulk email records program was discussed with both Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” Wyden and Udall said. “In our judgment it is also important to note that intelligence agencies made statements to both Congress and the court that significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness.”
The senators said that their experience demonstrated that intelligence agencies’ assessments “are not always accurate.” The senators added that their exchanges with officials about the e-mail program “led us to be skeptical of claims about the value of the bulk phone records collection program in particular,” a reference to administration arguments that the ongoing surveillance efforts have been crucial in thwarting terror plots.
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“We believe that the broader lesson here is that even though intelligence officials may be well-intentioned, assertions from intelligence agencies about the value and effectiveness of particular programs should not simply be accepted at face value by policymakers or oversight bodies any more than statements about the usefulness of other government programs should be taken at face value when they are made by other government officials,” the senators added.
Wyden’s March question to Clapper was part of a broader effort on the senator’s part to use carefully worded public statements and questions to draw attention to the existence of classified programs — and the administration’s lack of transparency — without revealing secret information in the process.
Clapper’s statement prompted some lawmakers to allege what Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) called a “double standard” in which a top official could deliver false testimony without fear of penalty.
“If the administration has a policy to lie to Congress about classified materials in unclassified hearings, then you have to ask yourself what value the hearings have and whether or not anyone else is doing it,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.).
Some are calling for a major overhaul of the current oversight system, including the intelligence committees and the surveillance court, which were created in the late 1970s amid growing concern about U.S. spy practices following Watergate, the Vietnam War and revelations about CIA efforts to overthrow foreign governments.
Congress “tried to make agencies which have to operate in secret accountable nevertheless to the law,” said former vice president Walter F. Mondale, who as a senator was a member of the Church Committee, which led the efforts to overhaul the system.
Now, Mondale said, “that system has totally collapsed.” He said Clapper’s willingness to mislead the public during Senate testimony “is what happens when there’s no accountability. . . . What is the consequence of fibbing to the American people?”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.