By Jeremy Herb - 07/02/13 11:40 PM EDT
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has apologized for a “clearly erroneous” statement he made to Congress over the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities.
In a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), released publicly on Tuesday, Clapper said he was mistaken when he told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that the United States did not collect data on millions of Americans.
“While my staff acknowledged the error to Senator Wyden’s staff soon after the hearing, I can now openly correct it because the existence of the metadata collection program has been declassified,” Clapper said.
Clapper’s statements at the March 12 Senate hearing have received enormous scrutiny ever since news stories revealed the NSA’s telephone and Internet surveillance programs last month.
Clapper directly contradicted those stories in his comments on March 12.
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked the intelligence director at the hearing.
“No, sir,” Clapper replied.
“There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly,” he added.
Members of Congress, particularly Wyden, had criticized Clapper since the NSA programs became public, and he has been under pressure to offer an apology. His letter was posted on his office’s website on Tuesday.
Clapper said he was writing in part because of the “charged rhetoric and heated controversy” over his response, so he could “set the record straight.”
Clapper wrote to Feinstein that he has “thought long and hard to re-create what went through my mind at the time.”
He said in the letter, portions of which were first reported Monday by The Washington Post, that he was faced with the challenge of giving an unclassified answer about intelligence activities.
He said he “simply didn’t think of Section 215 of the Patriot Act,” which contains provisions on the metadata collection detailed in reports on the NSA program.
“Instead, my answer focused on the collection of the content of communications,” he wrote. He indicated that he was thinking about Section 702 of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows the NSA to collect information on people reasonably believed to be outside the United States.
“That is why I added a comment about ‘inadvertent’ collection of U.S. person information, because that is what happens under Section 702 even though it is targeted at foreigners.”
After The Guardian newspaper stories revealed the NSA was collecting metadata on Americans’ phone calls last month, Clapper initially defended his comments at the hearing.
He said in an MSNBC interview last month that he responded in the “least untruthful” manner possible to a question about classified information.
“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.
The White House also defended his comments. Press secretary Jay Carney said last month that Clapper had been “straight and direct in the answers he’s given.”
Clapper’s explanation did little to soothe lawmakers’ anger.
“It now appears clear that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress and the American people,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) tweeted.
“Perjury is a serious crime ... [and] Clapper should resign immediately,” he said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that Clapper had broken the law, comparing him to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, who has been charged with espionage.
“Mr. Clapper lied in Congress in defiance of the law in the name of security,” Paul said on CNN last month. “Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy. So, I think there will be a judgment, because both of them broke the law, and history will have to determine.”
Wyden, who knew about the NSA programs when he pressed Clapper on them, said that Clapper was preventing Congress from conducting oversight.
“This job cannot be done responsibly if Senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions,” Wyden said in a statement last month.
“When NSA Director [Gen. Keith] Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence.”
Wyden has called for hearings on the NSA programs and pushed for more public disclosure.
Last week, he and a group of 26 senators wrote to Clapper asking for him to provide public information about the scope of the metadata surveillance program and examples of how it provides unique intelligence.
In addition to Clapper’s remarks, an NSA fact sheet describing its surveillance programs has come under fire from Congress.
Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) last week accused the agency of posting the fact sheet with a significant inaccuracy that “portrays protections for Americans’ privacy as being significantly stronger than they actually are.”
In response, the NSA scrubbed the fact sheet from its website, and Alexander agreed it “could have more precisely described the requirements for collection.”
The senators said they were unable to identify the inaccurate statement because further details were classified.
This story was updated at 7:40 p.m.