With the conviction of Bradley Manning and asylum granted to Edward Snowden in Russia, it may be time to turn attention away from the controversy over their actions and toward the government — specifically, the intelligence community. Whatever ultimate judgment is leveled on Manning’s or Snowden’s actions, they have raised real questions about the ways that the United States gathers, uses, and classifies information.
The first order of business is to restore a semblance of democratic order within the government itself. Somehow amid the hunt for Snowden and the trial of Manning, the misconduct of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has seemingly been excused. But if the actions of Manning and Snowden required prosecution, then what Clapper did deserves investigation and censure at the very least.
Testifying on surveillance by the National Security Agency last March, Clapper appeared at a Senate committee hearing where Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper replied, adding, “Not wittingly.”
Not only was that response false, but the nation’s highest ranking intelligence official gave that false answer in public, with ample warning from Wyden that he would be asked about that sensitive issue. Rather than speaking truthfully about the collection of telecom “metadata” — or even deflecting the question — Clapper lied. By doing so he aroused even greater anger and suspicion about the government’s motives when the lie was exposed, although the outlines of the NSA domestic surveillance program have been known for several years.
As Senator Wyden recently told The National Memo, Clapper was repeating the same misleading reassurances about widespread surveillance offered in other public remarks, which disturbed Wyden — who knew better already. And of course Clapper knew that Wyden and other senators were aware of the NSA’s collection programs, which only made his behavior more brazen. By attempting to implicate the Senate in an ongoing attempt to mislead the American people, he mocked the concept of legislative oversight — the only real check against intelligence abuses.