Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is really struggling to explain why he told Congress in March (see video above) that the National Security Agency does not intentionally collect any kind of data on millions of Americans. His latest take: It's an unfair question, he said, like "When are you going to stop beating your wife?" And it seems to depend on the meaning of "collect."
"I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no,'" Clapper told NBC News on Sunday.
A newly revealed NSA program, however, in which the agency secretly vacuumed up the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers seems to fit the definition of both "data" and "millions of Americans."
Last week, Clapper said his "no" meant that NSA analysts don't read Americans' emails. Some have noted that could explain his earlier answer because "collect" has a precise meaning in intelligence-gathering circles, and it's along those lines.
On Sunday, Clapper elaborated: "This has to do with of course somewhat of a semantic, perhaps some would say too cute by half. But it is—there are honest differences on the semantics of what—when someone says 'collection' to me, that has a specific meaning, which may have a different meaning to him."
Below is the exchange in the March hearing of the relevant Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.—who has long warned about excessive government surveillance of Americans, though in veiled terms because the information is classified—had just one question for Clapper. The especially important parts are in bold.
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 Sen. 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."
On Sunday, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell pressed him on the NSA collection and on the exchange with Wyden.
Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair.
"As I said, I have great respect for Sen. Wyden. 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,'" Clapper said, indicating that he did not consider it "collection" unless government officials actually reviewed the content of the communications. The NSA program, regarding phone records, scoops up "metadata"—phone numbers called, duration of calls, location and the like.