Obama admits intelligence chief fault over false Senate testimony
– members of Congress who warn of the dangerous precedent set by allowing an intelligence chief to lie to legislative bodies tasked with overseeing the powerful spy agencies
President continues to defend James Clapper in the face of calls for his resignation after ‘untruthful’ statement about bulk collection
Spencer Ackerman in Washington
theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 11.19 EST
President Barack Obama has said his director of national intelligence, James Clapper, ought to have been “more careful” in Senate testimony about surveillance that Clapper later acknowledged was untruthful following disclosures by Edward Snowden.
But Obama signaled continued confidence in Clapper in the face of calls for the director to resign from members of Congress who warn of the dangerous precedent set by allowing an intelligence chief to lie to legislative bodies tasked with overseeing the powerful spy agencies.
“Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded,” Obama told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview that aired on Friday.
Clapper has apologized to the Senate intelligence committee for testifying in March 2013 that the US government does “not wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans.
The answer was shown to have been untruthful when the Guardian published a top-secret court order from Snowden that showed the NSA was collecting the phone records of millions of US citizens.
In explaining his answer, the director first said he gave the “least untruthful” answer he could in an unclassified setting. Later he changed his story to say that he had forgotten about an authority claimed by the government under the Patriot Act to collect the records of every phone call sent and received in the US.
But in his first iteration of his explanation, delivered to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Clapper suggested that he believed the question was an unfair “’when are you going to … stop beating your wife’ kind of question”,suggesting that he gave a deliberate answer to senator Ron Wyden.
Obama suggested he accepted Clapper’s initial explanation as an excuse for untruthful testimony.
“His concern was that he had a classified program that he couldn’t talk about and he was in an open hearing in which he was asked, he was prompted to disclose a program and so he felt that he was caught between a rock and a hard place,” Obama told Tapper.
“Subsequently, I think he’s acknowledged that he could have handled it better.”
Wyden has pushed back hard against the suggestion his question was unfair. His staff has pointed out that they informed Clapper’s office before the hearing that the senator would press the issue about bulk data collection, and asked afterward for Clapper’s staff to correct the record. No correction came.
Additionally, Wyden’s March 2013 question was spurred by a request from the senator for the NSA and Clapper’s office to publicly correct another misleading public statement in an unclassified setting, this one made by the NSA director, Keith Alexander, in July 2012 to the Def Con hacker conference in Las Vegas.
“I will tell you that those who would want to weave the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is absolutely false,” Alexander said in response to a moderator question.
For months afterward, in letters to the NSA and to Clapper’s office, Wyden sought a public correction, since, as a member of the Senate intelligence committee, Wyden was aware the NSA was collecting the records of every domestic phone call on a daily basis. Members of the committee are prevented by classification rules from disclosing what they learn in closed session.
At the most recent Senate intelligence committee hearing this week, Wyden again pushed Clapper on the untruthful statements. He said Americans’ trust in the intelligence agencies “has been seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements that senior officials made to the American people. These statements did not protect sources and methods that were useful in fighting terror. Instead, they hid bad policy choices and violations of the liberties of the American people.”
Clapper’s lawyer, Robert Litt, wrote a letter to the New York Times editorial board earlier this month about the incident, denying that Clapper lied.
“I spoke with a staffer for Senator Wyden several days later and told him that although Mr Clapper recognized that his testimony was inaccurate, it could not be corrected publicly because the program involved was classified,” Litt wrote earlier this month.
Although Clapper’s defenders have said the director could not have requested to answer Wyden in closed session, lest he appear to tacitly confirm a classified program, that was the approach Clapper took during his testimony to the intelligence panel this week.
Clapper told Wyden that he would respond in closed session to questions on the NSA’s collection of data in transit across the global communications infrastructure and on whether the agency has ever exercised an authority it “sought and obtained” to conduct warrantless searches on “specific” Americans’ identifying information in its databases of foreign internet communications.
“I think at a threat hearing I would prefer not to discuss this, and have this as a separate subject,” Clapper said.
“This committee can’t do oversight if we can’t get direct answers,” Wyden said, ultimately receiving a commitment for a public answer from Clapper within 30 days.
While Clapper’s job has been safe for months, six members of the House of Representatives wrote to Obama on Monday calling for the director’s resignation.
Clapper’s continued service is “incompatible with the goal of restoring trust in our security programs and ensuring the highest level of transparency,” wrote the congressmen led by Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican who chairs the oversight and government reform committee, and who is a fervent administration critic.
“I am actually confident that we can continue to have the best intelligence service in the world, but win back the confidence of both the American people, as well as folks overseas,” Obama told Tapper.