Intelligence officials are in the middle of their all-out public relations campaign following reports from The Guardian and The Washington Post revealing the National Security Agency collects all phone call metadata and most of the Internet. Their rousing defense of the surveillance programs at times suggests intelligence officials would benefit from a public debate, because they would be forced to hear people explain how ridiculous they sound. Take, for example, former NSA chief Michael Hayden, who tells The Daily Beast's Eli Lake that even back when the agency was conducting warrantless wiretapping — eavesdropping on phone calls between Americans and people overseas in the mid-2000s — agents had a significant check on their power in the form of an office motivational poster. "At the height of the terrorist surveillance program," Hayden said, "when you walked into the office where this was being done, you saw these people work with headphones [and] there was a big sign hanging from the ceiling that said: 'What Constitutes a U.S. Person?'" While a poster undoubtedly provides a strong check on executive power, we unfortunately have evidence that the poster was not 100-percent effective.
Members of the House of Representatives were briefed on the NSA's programs on Tuesday by a "phalanx of FBI, legal and intelligence officials," the Associated Press reported, but many said their questions were unanswered. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison said he had "more questions," but "I can't say what they are," The Hill's Jeremy Herb and Mike Lillis report. Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer felt the same, saying, "I haven't fully formed my questions that I want to get answered." California Rep. Brad Sherman had his question figured out, though. He said that while intelligence officials say they won't dig through their massive data sets unless queries meet "very clear standards," "we don’t have courts making sure those standards are always followed."
One reason the NSA's PR offensive must be so vigorous is that its old PR strategy sounds a lot like lies. In a March 12 Senate hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper responded, "No, sir... Not wittingly." Since last week, it's become clear that Clapper's statement was not exactly true. Clapper's given a series of interviews to explain the comment, each time getting closer to admitting that what he said was not true.
Clapper explained that comment to National Journal's Michael Hirsh last week by saying, "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that." A few days later he told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no." He said his comment was "too cute by half." Wyden revealed he'd sent Clapper the question in advance, so he had time to think of a way to answer the question that was even less untruthful. Wyden's office also gave Clapper a chance to amend his statement, at which point he could have made it less cute. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Clapper three Pinocchios on Wednesday. Michigan Rep. Justin Amash was less geneous, demanding Clapper's resignation on Facebook. "Members of Congress can't make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements," Amash said. "Perjury is a serious crime. Mr. Clapper should resign immediately."
Clapper wasn't the only official who was cute with facts. In February, NSA general counsel Rajesh De gave a speech to debunk "false myths" about the agency. Those were that the NSA "is a vacuum that indiscriminately sweeps up and stores global communications"; that it "is spying on Americans at home and abroad with questionable or no legal basis"; and that it "operates in the shadows free from external scrutiny or any true accountability." De's debunking has been debunked.
NSA director Keith Alexander will testify before the Senate on Wednesday, as will Richard McFeely, the executive assistant director of the FBI's criminal, cyber, response, and services branch. Wyden says he wants Clapper to come back to the Senate to give "straight answers."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.