James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, denied Tuesday that he lied to Congress when he falsely testified during the Obama administration that the government does “not wittingly” collect the telephone records of millions of Americans.
The head of the U.S. intelligence community under former President Barack Obama, Mr. Clapper recalled his 2013 testimony in light of the National Security Agency reportedly abandoning a controversial, warrantless mass-surveillance program he previously denied existing.
“I didn’t lie, I made a big mistake, and I just simply didn’t understand what I was being asked about,” Mr. Clapper said on CNN. “I thought of another surveillance program, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, when I was being asked about Section 215 of the Patriot Act at the time, I just didn’t understand that. “
During a public hearing in March 2013, Mr. Clapper was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
“No sir,” Mr. Clapper responded. “Not wittingly”
Classified documents leaked to the media revealed three months later that the NSA had been compelling U.S. telecommunication providers for copies of telephone records, known as metadata, for essentially every call and text occurring over domestic networks.
Secretly implemented after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA bulk metadata collection program was significantly reformed under the USA Freedom Act passed in 2015 and is slated to expire at the end of the year unless renewed by Congress.
Luke Murry, a national security adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said in a recent interview that the NSA quietly suspended the program in 2018 and that it is not guaranteed to be reauthorized, however.
The NSA declined to discuss the status of the program when reached for comment.
“This program was put in place as a direct result of 9/11, and the point was to be able to track quickly a foreign communicant talking to somebody in this country who may have been plotting a terrorist plot, and was put in place during the Bush administration for that reason,” Mr. Clapper said on CNN. “I always regarded it as kind of a safeguard or insurance policy so that if the need came up you would have this to refer to.
“What this was was just trying to capitalize on the lesson learned from 9/11,” Mr. Clapper added. “I will say that, and I’ve said this publicly many times before, that what this did prove is the need for the intelligence community to have been more transparent.”
Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, identified himself as the source of the leaked NSA documents, including material detailing the metadata collection program, shortly after they were first reported by The Guardian in June 2013. He was criminally charged while traveling abroad and has not returned to the United States.
“I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to speak up,” Mr. Snowden tweeted Tuesday. “If only I hadn’t been so afraid.”
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