Top spy warns 'open' intelligence hearings pose risk to US abroad

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper warned a Senate panel on Tuesday that “open” intelligence hearings are a danger to the United States’ diplomatic relations abroad.

Testifying at the Senate Intelligence Committee’s annual public hearing on worldwide threats to the country, Clapper warned lawmakers of the risks that such a forum could pose to U.S. ties overseas, saying that he learned that lesson “the hard way.”

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“While I believe it’s important to keep the American public informed about the threats our nation faces, I believe that can be done by unclassified opening statements and statements for the record,” said Clapper. “But an open hearing on intelligence matters is something of a contradiction in terms.

“Our attempts to avoid revealing classified information sometimes leads to misinterpretation or accusations that we’re being circumspect for improper reasons,” he said.

“So when we ask to discuss certain matters in a closed session, it’s not to evade, but rather to protect our intelligence sources and methods and to be sensitive to the often delicate relations we have with our allies and partners. They too will carefully listen to and watch these hearings, as I’ve learned the hard way.”

Clapper joined CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matt Olsen at Tuesday’s hearing. 

The DNI’s comments come on the heels of public remarks made last year by the administration about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The unclassified “talking points” spurred a furor mainly from Republicans who said the administration misled the American public about that nature of the attack, by saying that it was not preplanned or terrorist in nature.  

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice initially blamed the deadly attack on spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Islam film. Later, the administration acknowledged that the attack was a planned terrorist assault on the U.S. compound.

The White House says that Rice’s statements were based on then current intelligence provided to her.