Marc Thiessen makes a point I was preparing to write up, and wish I had written: The real culprit behind James Clapper’s false testimony to Congress regarding NSA data collection isn’t Clapper, but rather Sen. Ron Wyden who asked the question to which Clapper responded. Since Thiessen went first, I’ll let him explain:
What is outrageous is not that Clapper tried to protect classified information in an open session, but that Senator Ron Wyden asked him the question in open session the first place. Wyden, an opponent of the NSA program, asked Clapper in front of television cameras: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Wyden knew the answer. He knew the answer was classified. He knew that Clapper could not answer it in open session. Yet he asked it anyway.
Wyden was either trying to embarrass Clapper, trip him up, or force him to reveal classified information. Whatever the motivation, it was a reprehensible thing to do. And it put Clapper in an untenable position. There was no truthful answer he could have given in open session that would not have revealed a top secret intelligence program.
There was also no way Clapper could duck the question:
If Clapper had simply said “I will be happy to discuss that in closed session,” it would have set off a firestorm of speculation, and been seen as a tacit admission that the US was collecting such data. The program would have been effectively exposed.
If he had said “Yes, but I can’t discuss it in open session,” he would have confirmed the existence of the program, and people would have jumped to all sorts of false conclusions that the NSA was reading our emails and listening to our phone calls (which they are not). And Clapper would not have been at liberty to explain what the NSA was actually doing, and the fact that no Americans’ phone calls were being monitored or recorded.
Accordingly, it is Wyden, not Clapper, who should be punished here (as Thiessen notes, Clapper didn’t mislead Congress because the committee had already been briefed on the program in closed session). At a minimum, the oily Oregon Senator should be kicked off of the Intelligence Committee.
Wyden tried to cast himself in a positive light, and make Clapper look even worse, by telling reporters that he provided Clapper with advance notice of his question. But advance notice was unhelpful — the question put Clapper in the box Thieseen describes and left him no way out (other than refusing to appear in public session).
Thanks for nothing, Senator.
One final point. It’s been argued that no harm was done by revealing the data gathering program, since terrorists already assume that this intelligence is being collected. But this assessment isn’t for Edward Snowden or Ron Wyden to make.
In any case, it’s a dubious assessment. Sophisticated terrorist groups may well assume that NSA is collecting phone records, etc. But less sophisticated, lone-wolf type terrorists probably don’t. After all, this round of revelations is said to be shocking. And, according to the government, NSA’s data collection has, in fact, prevented terrorist incidents.