Sen. Wyden presses Clapper for ‘straight answers’ on NSA

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Tuesday called for public hearings to investigate the scope of the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance of Americans, questioning if Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had provided “straight answers” to lawmakers about the programs.

The Oregon senator pointed to Clapper’s testimony during a March 12 hearing, where Wyden asked if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”

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“No, sir,” Clapper had responded. “There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect [intelligence on Americans], but not wittingly.”

The exchange put Clapper in a difficult position. Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had been briefed on the NSA program, but publicly led Clapper in a line of questioning that would either require him to disavow knowledge of the program, or to answer truthfully, breaking the law by revealing classified information.

While Wyden did not charge Clapper with lying before Congress, in a statement Tuesday he repeatedly suggested that the intelligence director had not been forthcoming about the NSA’s secret programs.

“One of the most important responsibilities a Senator has is oversight of the intelligence community,” Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said. “This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”

Clapper’s response has received scrutiny following the disclosure last week of the NSA’s secret program which gathered metadata on Verizon customers calls and a second program, PRISM, which gathered internet data on foreigners from American tech companies.

Wyden said that Clapper had time to prepare the answer to his question before testifying before Congress.

“When NSA Director Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence,” he said.

“So that he would be prepared to answer, 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,” he continued. “Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives."

Clapper tried to clarify the remarks while speaking to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Monday, arguing that he meant to convey that the NSA doesn’t “voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' emails.”

Wyden told Mitchell that he tried to answer the question about classified information in the “least untruthful” manner possible.

“I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked a ‘When are you going to stop beating your wife’ kind of question, which is … not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no,” Clapper said.

“So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying ‘no.’ And again, to go back to my metaphor. What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers — of those books in that metaphorical library — to me, collection of U.S. persons' data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.”

This story was last updated at 12:15 p.m.