How to Get Away With Lying—Sorry, With Making "Least Untruthful" Statements

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
July 1 2013 11:41 AM

How to Get Away With Lying—Sorry, With Making "Least Untruthful" Statements

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied about the extent of the National Security Agency's surveillance program at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Greg Miller reports on an obvious-seeming thing that Washington has tried to whistle loudly enough to ignore. Our intelligence leaders lied to Congress, in public, about the extent of surveillance. Their punishment will be ... nothing, probably. After all, DNI James Clapper has apologized for "misunderstanding" the now-famous question about whether Americans are having their data looked at. He did so in a June 21 letter, sent first to Sen. Ron Wyden, who asked the question.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee in March has drawn comparisons to other cases in which U.S. intelligence officials faced, under oath, questions that to answer truthfully would require exposing a classified program.
In 1973, then-CIA Director Richard Helms denied agency involvement in CIA operations in Chile, a falsehood that led to him pleading no contest four years later to misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress.
There is no indication that lawmakers have contemplated pursuing such a course against Clapper, in part because he subsequently corrected his claim, although there is disagreement over how quickly he did so.
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That's awfully forgiving. Back on June 11, Wyden revealed that he'd given the exam answers in advance. "So that he would be prepared to answer," he wrote, "I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer." Ten days later, Clapper sent a letter to Wyden apologizing for misunderstanding the question! (This complicates the theory, proferred by Marc Thiessen, that Wyden sandbagged Clapper, forcing him to lie in public.)

So is anyone in Congress going to give Clapper the Helms treatment? Wyden's office, surprisingly, did not quickly answer a leading question from me about this, but it's been a few weeks now, and no one in Congress has come after Clapper. Here, you see where political outrage at the program runs up against the consensus that it's needed.

UPDATE: Wyden spokesman Tom Caiazza:

Senator Wyden had a staff member contact the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on a secure phone line soon after the March hearing to address the inaccurate statement regarding bulk collection on Americans.  The ODNI acknowledged that the statement was inaccurate but refused to correct the public record when given the opportunity.  Senator Wyden's staff informed the ODNI that this was a serious concern.  Senator Wyden continued to raise concerns about the government’s reliance on secret law in the weeks following the hearing, prior to the Guardian publishing its first story several weeks later.  Senator Wyden is deeply troubled by a number of misleading statements senior officials have made about domestic surveillance in the past several years.  He will continue pushing for an open and honest debate about programs and laws that touch on the personal lives of ordinary Americans.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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