In March 2013, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) put the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on the spot on NSA's dragnet style surveillance of American citizens.
Wyden had been briefed (according to his comments here) on the ongoing program that is now known as PRISM and/or the Verizon phone records program. At the hearing on March 12 before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wyden appeared to be trying to expose this program to Congress and the general public.
The senator was likely taken by surprise when Director Clapper appeared to directly deny the existence of the program Wyden was aware of, which is probably why he asked Clapper to repeat himself. The following is from the hearing:
Wyden: And this is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer because I know Senator Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer the NSA director was at a conference and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, '...the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.' The reason I'm asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don't really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
Clapper: "No, sir."
Wyden: "It does not."
Clapper: "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."
Wyden: "All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer."
Wyden is on the Intelligence Committee and knew what he was asking about. He was not fishing with this question; rather, he was specifically asking about what we now know as PRISM and/or the Verizon records program and trying to get Clapper to discuss this issue with Congress. And Clapper, who could clearly have said something along the lines of "any program of that nature would be classified..." instead chose to answer the question, which he likely knew was referring to PRISM, in a way that he knew, or should have known, would mislead Congress.
Wyden seems to have done everything he could to shed light on this information for the American people without violating American law. He previously asked the NSA for a "ballpark estimate" on how many Americans are being spied upon under FISA. The NSA responded that they could not answer the question: "Obtaining such an estimate was beyond the capacity of his office...An IG review of the sort suggested would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons."
Wyden's question to Clapper was quite explicit: he asked, does the NSA collect "any type of data." And Clapper said no. If the reports in the Washington Post and the Guardian on PRISM and the Verizon phone records program are accurate, then this statement appears to be a lie.
Clapper was asked to clarify his remarks on Thursday and told the National Journal, "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that."
This is an interesting "update" to his comment and logical damage control. But this is not necessarily clear either. Wittingly means "with full knowledge and deliberation." The Powerpoint released last week, if facts substantiate what has already been reported, appears to show that in the PRISM program the NSA is wittingly and deliberately collecting information on millions of Americans.
Clapper's statement appears to be untrue; however, legal experts may able to parse it in a different way. If it wasn't a lie it appears to be clearly misleading.
Lying to Congress is an extremely serious offense, although few have been found guilty. Roger Clemens was indicted for lying to Congress (but ultimately found innocent of perjury). Many of the cases of individuals convicted of lying to Congress arose from Watergate, including President Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, and Nixon's Chief of staff, H.R Haldeman.
Executive officials can be impeached for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." As a non-criminal matter, there are serious grounds to argue that lying to Congress is among the most severe potential "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Lying to a grand jury was the grounds for President Clinton's impeachment; and that was lying to a grand jury, not lying to Congress when Congress is the relevant oversight branch. Furthermore, lying to Congress while Congress is performing oversight impedes a Congressional inquiry and investigation; Clinton's lying to a grand jury did not impede Congressional functioning. This may be a poor example, because many disagreed with Clinton's impeachment. The point is only that Clapper's statement rises to or even exceeds previous standards for impeachment. (Impeachment is the House essentially "indicting" an Executive official which would require the Senate to convict for ultimate removal.)
Under the Constitution, Congress has a few major roles: to pass legislation and to oversee the Executive branch. The Intelligence Committee was specifically created to oversee the Intelligence Community in the wake of systemic abuses from the 1960s and 1970s. This oversight of intelligence organizations is critical to protecting average citizens from abuses that were well documented, including the wiretapping of Martin Luther King Jr. But this oversight process can only work if members of the Executive branch are honest with Congress. Members of the Executive branch know this, and these high stakes are precisely why in confrontations between the Executive and the Legislative branch, sometimes Executive branch officials try to refuse to appear before Congress - citing executive privilege.
Clapper's statement appears to have misled the relevant Congressional Committee, and more importantly, misled Members of Congress who don't receive the information that the Intelligence Committee receives. Ultimately these statements misled the general public. This obfuscation of the truth inhibited the Intelligence Committee from performing proper oversight, which is the primary role of the Intelligence Committee. There is little point in having an oversight committee for intelligence if members of the intelligence community can simply lie when asked questions before a hearing.
Misspeaking at a hearing may be a mistake. Misspeaking before the Intelligence Committee is an extremely grievous mistake. But even more egregious here is the Clapper had ample time to correct the record and apparently failed to do so. Statements made at hearings are not coffee shop like discussions; rather, they are carefully prepared in advance. If Clapper did not have a prepared answer for this question, it's extremely likely that the NSA counsel would have reviewed his statement after the hearing - putting him on notice that if his statement was incorrect he had the obligation to correct it. In fact, if the NSA's counsel knew that Clapper was lying or misspeaking, he may have had a legal obligation to tell Clapper to inform the Committee of his misstatement. And, under a similar procedure for lying at court, if Clapper refused to correct the record then the counsel may have had an obligation to tell the Committee anyway. This gives some perspective on the legal severity of lying to a congressional committee.
President Obama has claimed that Congress was aware of all ongoing programs of this nature. The Administration can't have it both ways. It can't claim that Congress was in the loop and signed off when the Director of National Intelligence appears to have at best misled and at worst lied to the relevant oversight branch.
Our entire national security infrastructure was restructured because of the major scandals in the 1960s and 70s which ultimately culminated in the Church and Pike Committees. The Congressional Intelligence Committees were created to oversee the intelligence community and protect against abuses. The Committees were designed particularly to ensure protection of American citizens' civil liberties. If the PRISM program represents the most significant and controversial ongoing intelligence operations impacting civil liberties in the past forty years (so we hope), then shouldn't misleading the relevant committee be treated as among the most serious offenses that an executive official can commit? If not, how can Congress have any ability to oversee intelligence operations at all? If being in charge of the intelligence community, as Clapper is, and misleading the relevant committee overseeing your operations when they are trying to investigate is not a "high crime and misdemeanor," then what other forms of misbehavior would meet that threshold? What message would it send to other governmental officials when asked to speak to Congress?
Check out my testimony on cell phone unlocking at the House Judiciary Committee hearing last week.
Derek Khanna (@DerekKhanna and Facebook.com/derekkhanna) is the maverick former Republican staffer and civil liberties advocate whose op-eds on cell phone unlocking went viral in January. He is now a Yale Law Fellow, columnist, and policy expert, and leader in the campaign to legalize unlocking your cell.