Director of National Intelligence James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Susan Walsh/AP

Intelligence Chief: I Didn't Lie About NSA Surveillance

In interview with National Journal, Clapper says he didn't intend to mislead.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Thursday that he stood by what he told Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in March when he said that the National Security Agency does not "wittingly" collect data on millions of Americans.

"What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that," Clapper told National Journal in a telephone interview.

On March 12, at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden asked Clapper: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper responded: "No, sir." When Wyden followed up by asking, "It does not?" Clapper said: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect—but not wittingly." Clapper did not specify at the time that he was referring to e-mail.

The exchange came more than a month before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted a secret order to the FBI on April 25, giving the government unlimited authority for three months to amass the telephone records of millions of U.S. customers of Verizon, according a report in The Guardian. Although the court order was signed 10 days after the Boston Marathon bombings, on Thursday the two senior senators on the Intelligence Committee described the order as a regular renewal of an ongoing program. "As far as I know, this is the exact three-month renewal of what has been in place for the past seven years," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the committee chairwoman, told reporters. The ranking member, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also said the program was "nothing new. This has been going on for seven years." He added: "Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this. To my knowledge there has not been any citizen who has registered a complaint. It has proved meritorious because we have collected significant information on bad guys, but only on bad guys, over the years."

Still, the disclosures about the NSA's domestic surveillance, which was unheard of before 9/11, and the secrecy with which the administration has pursued such intelligence gathering, raised questions about how forthcoming U.S. officials have been in acknowledging domestic snooping. Clapper's response to Wyden, and his later explanation of the meaning of his answer, are a case in point.

The Verizon records, it is true, apparently did not include actual content or conversations, but rather only information such as phone numbers, call duration and ID numbers.

A senior administration official told reporters on Thursday that the telephone data allow "counterterrorism personnel to discover whether known or suspected terrorists have been in contact with other persons who may be engaged in terrorist activities, particularly people located inside the United States."

Clapper, asked to reflect on his tenure as DNI for a special issue of National Journal, also commented on the intelligence community's handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attack that left U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. "The major lesson I learned from that is, don't do talking points," Clapper said. A painstakingly edited set of "talking points" became the focal point in the Benghazi imbroglio after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whom President Obama just named as his national security adviser, went on TV and blamed the incident on "spontaneous" protests, rather than terrorists. E-mails released by the White House revealed extensive editing that simplified the talking points down, leading to accusations that information about terrorist involvement was being covered up by the Obama administration. At the time, the president was in the middle of a reelection campaign in which he was claiming that he had "decimated" al-Qaida.

But Clapper said the "fact is that we did not have a clear picture and in fact had contradictory indications at the time" of who the culprits in the attacks were. Even today, he said, with a much better idea of the attackers' identity, investigators still believe  the perpetrators were a "mixed bag of people" that included elements of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia group, as well as "looters and vandals."  He said one problem was that "people seemingly wanted to ascribe only one motivation. It was either-or when in fact it was a combination of all of the above."