Outrage is brewing on the Left and Right over charges that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied to Congress about NSA data collection. But the outrage is misdirected. What is outrageous is not that Clapper tried to protect classified information in an open session, but that Senator Ron Wyden asked him the question in open session the first place.
Wyden, an opponent of the NSA program, asked Clapper in front of television cameras: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
Wyden knew the answer. He knew the answer was classified. He knew that Clapper could not answer it in open session. Yet he asked it anyway.
Wyden was either trying to embarrass Clapper, trip him up, or force him to reveal classified information. Whatever the motivation, it was a reprehensible thing to do. And it put Clapper in an untenable position. There was no truthful answer he could have given in open session that would not have revealed a top secret intelligence program.
If Clapper had simply said “I will be happy to discuss that in closed session,” it would have set off a firestorm of speculation, and been seen as a tacit admission that the US was collecting such data. The program would have been effectively exposed.
If he had said “Yes, but I can’t discuss it in open session,” he would have confirmed the existence of the program, and people would have jumped to all sorts of false conclusions that the NSA was reading our emails and listening to our phone calls (which they are not). And Clapper would not have been at liberty to explain what the NSA was actually doing, and the fact that no Americans’ phone calls were being monitored or recorded.
Clapper did not mislead Congress, as some have suggested, because the committee had already been briefed on the program in closed session. Wyden knew the answer to his question. He wasn’t trying to get information — he was trying to expose a secret in open session.
The fact is Senator Wyden should never have put Clapper in such a position. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, with a top secret security clearance and privileged access to classified intelligence, Wyden has a sworn responsibility to protect our nation’s secrets. Instead, he tried to force their disclosure in a public forum.
It was a shameful and reprehensible performance, not from Clapper but from Wyden. That is where our outrage should be directed.
I discussed the controversy on The Kudlow Report last night. Here is the video: