The careful depiction of NSA programs also served diplomatic ends. Until recently, the United States had positioned itself as such an innocent victim of cyber intrusions by Russia and China that the State Department issued a secret demarche, or official diplomatic communication, in January scolding Beijing. That posture became more problematic after leaks by the former NSA contractor and acknowledged source of the NSA leaks, Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and is thought to be stuck at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow.
Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in March has drawn comparisons to other cases in which U.S. intelligence officials faced, under oath, questions that to answer truthfully would require exposing a classified program.
In 1973, then-CIA Director Richard Helms denied agency involvement in CIA operations in Chile, a falsehood that led to him pleading no contest four years later to misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress.
There is no indication that lawmakers have contemplated pursuing such a course against Clapper, in part because he subsequently corrected his claim, although there is disagreement over how quickly he did so.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who had asked Clapper the question about information collection on Americans, said in a recent statement that the director had failed to clarify the remark promptly despite being asked to do so. Clapper disputed that in his note to the committee, saying his “staff acknowledged the error to Senator Wyden’s staff soon after the hearing.”
In early June, after the NSA leaks had brought renewed attention to Clapper’s “No, sir,” Clapper cited the difficulty of answering a question about a classified program and said in an interview on NBC News that he had responded in the “least most untruthful manner.”
He made a new attempt to explain the exchange in his June 21 correspondence, which included a hand-written note to Wyden saying that an attached letter was addressed to the committee chairman but that he “wanted [Wyden] to see this first.”
Clapper said he thought Wyden was referring to NSA surveillance of e-mail traffic involving overseas targets, not the separate program in which the agency is authorized to collect records of Americans’ phone calls that include the numbers and duration of calls but not individuals’ names or the contents of their calls.
Referring to his appearances before Congress over several decades, Clapper concluded by saying that “mistakes will happen, and when I make one, I correct it.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.