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Opinion James Clapper, NSA and the “L” word

The leaks of top-secret information of the past week have raised loads of government-accountability questions, none of which has been juicier than the one pertaining to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. As anyone who’s tuned in to cable news for a few seconds now knows, Clapper had a key exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) back on March 12 in a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Wyden asked whether the National Security Agency (NSA) collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” The question clearly left Clapper uncomfortable, scratching his head and looking downward. But he replied, “No, sir….” Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect. But not wittingly.”

In the weeks after Clapper made that statement, not much happened. It wasn’t noteworthy, after all. That situation changed, however, last Wednesday, when the Guardian revealed a document describing how the NSA was gathering the phone-call “metadata” of millions of Verizon customers across the country. All of a sudden, that Senate testimony was worth running on a loop on every TV news program out there.

Journalists, indeed, could scarcely request a stronger contradiction. Clapper, after all, was asked point-blank about whether the government was collecting “any type of data” on Americans. “No, sir,” he answered.

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Does that mean that Clapper lied?

*New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal:

Government officials employ various tactics to avoid actually saying anything at intelligence hearings, mostly by fogging up the room with references to national security and with vague generalities. It’s part of a dance, which the public and the media may grumble about but which we also expect.
Outright lying is another matter.

*Slate, via Fred Kaplan: “The Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about NSA surveillance. What else will he lie about?”

*Techdirt: “Why James Clapper Should Be Impeached For Lying To Congress”

*The National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke: “Clapper’s Lie.” Writes Cooke about Clapper’s testimony: “This message, an explanation to Congress of what the executive branch was up to, was crystal clear: Don’t worry, the NSA is not allowed to track Americans — and it’s not going to. The primary problem with this, as the revelations of last week have demonstrated, is that it was not true.”

*The Atlantic wire: “Both Sides Can Agree: America’s Top Spy Lied About Data Mining”

*The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, with a softer touch: “We now know that Clapper was not telling the truth. The National Security Agency is quite wittingly collecting phone records of millions of Americans, and much more.”

Faced with that same data set, Clapper has reached far different conclusions. He told the National Journal, for instance: “What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails. I stand by that,” said Clapper, though the discussion with Wyden didn’t single out e-mails. And Clapper gave NBC News a convoluted explanation that needs a bit of decryption: “I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked [a] ‘when are you going to … stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which is … not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying, ‘No.’ And again, going back to my metaphor, what I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library. To me collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

A statement from Wyden today lamented that senators weren’t getting “straight answers to direct questions.”

It’s in the context of this back-and-forth that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney today fielded a question about the integrity of Clapper’s pronouncements. Carney responded that the president believes the top spy had been “straight and direct in the answers he’s given” and “aggressive in providing as much information as possible to the American people, to the press, about this very important, very sensitive program.”

Good on the media outlets that have looked at the record and reached harsh, plain-language conclusions about Clapper’s truthfulness. The New York Times piece by Rosenthal just hit the Internet minutes ago, ensuring that similar condemnations will follow. As they should.

Media organizations are rightfully careful about deploying the “L” word — after all, a lie is something that the person knows is false at the time of utterance. That means you need to know what’s in the head of the alleged liar, a lofty evidentiary bar to clear. Could Clapper have conceivably not known about the phone-records collection when he issued his denial to Wyden? He hasn’t made such a claim.

As Kaplan’s Slate piece notes, Clapper’s various explanations harden the case against him. And Carney’s words don’t soften it, either.