The remark by Litt, general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, was aimed at news organizations. But details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have also often been misleading, erroneous or simply false.
The same day Litt spoke, the NSA quietly removed from its Web site a fact sheet about its collection activities because it contained inaccuracies discovered by lawmakers.
A week earlier, President Obama, in a television interview, asserted that oversight of the surveillance programs was “transparent” because of the involvement of a special court, even though that court’s sessions and decisions are sealed from the public. “It is transparent,” Obama said of the oversight process. “That’s why we set up the FISA court.”
A remark by Litt’s boss, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr., has perhaps drawn the most attention. Asked during a congressional hearing in March whether the NSA collected data on millions of Americans, Clapper replied, “No, sir.”
U.S. officials have cited a variety of factors to explain the discrepancies, including the challenge of speaking publicly and definitively about programs that remain classified and involve procedures and technical systems that are highly complex.
Jane Harman, a former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that speaking about secret programs can be a “minefield” for public officials.
“Are people deliberately misleading other people? I suppose it can happen,” Harman said in an interview. Facts can be obscured through “selective declassification that means you put out some pieces but not others,” she said. “But I assume most people are acting in good faith.”
Acknowledging the “heated controversy” over his remark, Clapper sent a letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 21 saying that he had misunderstood the question he had been asked.
“I have thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time,” Clapper said in the previously undisclosed letter. “My response was clearly erroneous — for which I apologize.”
Beyond inadvertent missteps, however, an examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.
Obama’s assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.