By Jonathan Easley - 06/11/13 06:15 PM EDT
The White House on Tuesday rejected a claim from a top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee who alleged Director of National Intelligence James Clapper didn’t provide “straight answers” to lawmakers about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) electronic surveillance of citizens.
The vote of confidence from the White House came just hours after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) publicly questioned whether Clapper had provided “straight answers” at a March hearing with lawmakers.
At the hearing, Wyden asked clapper if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”
“No, sir,” Clapper had responded. “There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect [intelligence on Americans], but not wittingly.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Wyden didn’t accuse Clapper of lying before Congress, but repeatedly suggested that he 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 said in a statement on Tuesday. “This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
Clapper’s response has been scrutinized in the wake of last week’s revelation of a secret NSA program that gathers metadata on Verizon customer phone calls, as well as a second program, called PRISM, which gathers Internet data on foreigners from American tech companies.
However, Wyden’s line of questioning placed Clapper in tough position at the time.
As a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden had been briefed on the NSA programs, 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.
Clapper sought to clarify his remarks on Monday, telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he meant to convey that the NSA doesn’t “voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' emails.”
Clapper 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.”