One of the most important responsibilities a Senator has is oversight of the intelligence community. This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions. When NSA Director Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence[...] Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives.
The exchange referenced in the statement occurred during a hearing in March, when Wyden specifically asked for clarification about an earlier comment from NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander which claimed the agency did not collect dossiers about American citizens. Wyden, noting he wasn’t entirely sure what dossier meant in this context, pointedly inquired, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded, “No.” When pressed on the issue by Wyden, he softened his answer to “Not wittingly, there are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.” A video of the exchange is available here.
In light of the revelation last week that Verizon and other telecommunication companies were ordered by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to turn over metadata on all calls on their networks in United States, Clapper’s statement now appears at odds with the facts. It’s hard to believe Clapper thought the NSA’s collection of metadata on all calls in the U.S. wouldn’t include the call records of American citizens. According to Wyden’s statement, he shared the question with Clapper in advance and offered to allow him to amend his answer after the fact.
For his part, Clapper told NBC he thought Wyden’s inquiry was “not answerable necessarily, by a simple yes or no” so he responded in what he believed to be “the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, ‘No.’” It should also be noted that officials typically decline to discuss the details of classified programs during public hearings.
Wyden has long been critical of legal interpretations authorizing government snooping remaining secret. In a letter from himself and Sen. Mark Udall (R-CO) to Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012, he said “most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of how these secret court opinions have interpreted section 215 of the Patriot Act” and argued there was a “significant gap” between what most Americans believe the law allows for and how it is being interpreted.
Other details from the letter says that Clapper’s denials at the March hearing were part of a pattern of the Obama Administration refusing to discuss the details of surveillance programs. Despite a letter the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote to Wyden and Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) Wyden in August 2009 to announce the establishment of a regular process for reviewing, redacting and releasing significant opinions of the FISA, not a single opinion had been released in the two and a half years since.
In the letter Wyden also said the secrecy was a problem “because it is impossible to have an informed public debate about what the law should say when the public doesn’t know what its government thinks the law says.” This mirrors comments by NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s justification for releasing documents about government surveillance programs, who said at least now the public has “the power to decide for themselves whether they are willing to sacrifice their privacy to the surveillance state.”
Wyden is part of a bipartisan group of Senators supporting a bill introduced today to declassify important Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) opinions, allowing the public to learn how the government is interpreting their legal authority to snoop under the USA PATRIOT Act and FISA.
The White House defended Clapper’s statements, with spokesman Jay Carney saying the President “certainly believes that Director Clapper has been straight and direct in the answers he’s given” Congress.