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Clapper did not lie to Congress on NSA spy programs, ODNI counsel asserts

Spy chief James Clapper did not lie to Congress when he denied the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans, the general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote Friday.

In a letter published by the New York Times, Robert S. Litt said when Clapper appeared at a Congressional hearing last March, he was caught off guard when Oregon Senator Ron Wyden asked him about the possibility that the NSA was collecting vast amounts of data on millions of Americans.

“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked Clapper at the hearing in March.

Appearing distressed, Clapper paused, scratched his forehead, then responded: “No.”

“It does not?” Wyden pressed.

“Not wittingly,” Clapper replied. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect — but not wittingly.”

Three months later, classified documents distributed to reporters by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden made public the existence of programs that collect telephone call data of every American phone customer. Clapper’s earlier denial of such programs put the spy boss in an “awkward position,” the New York Times reported.

Last week, the Times editorial board wrote that Clapper “lied to Congress when testifying in March that the N.S.A. was not collecting data on millions of Americans.” While politicians have opined on what should happen to Snowden for leaking the classified documents, “there has been no discussion of punishment for (Clapper’s) lie.”

That’s because Clapper didn’t lie, according to Litt.

“(Clapper) was surprised by the question and focused his mind on the collection of the content of American’s communications,” Litt wrote. “In that context, his answer was accurate.”

But that appears to contradict Clapper’s own explanation of his answer to Wyden. In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell one week after the first Snowden documents were published, Clapper appeared fully aware of the Senator’s question.

“I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying ‘no,'” Clapper said.

In another interview, Clapper claimed the question asked him about email surveillance — not data collection — and said his answers was accurate.

“What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails,” Clapper told the National Journal. “I stand by that.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).