On the face of it what happened in March was an example of everything that is wrong with government. When asked a straightforward question about whether the government collects data on millions of Americans, the director of national intelligence said the answer was no. In the wake of the revelation of the PRISM program that we know involves the capture of such data, James Clapper’s answer to Senator Ron Wyden’s question appears to be a big fat lie for which the DNI should pay with his job. Clapper’s deception seems to be just one more instance of governmental misbehavior along with Benghazi, the IRS scandal and the Justice Department’s spying on the Associated Press and Fox News. His dishonest answer is seen by many as little different from Attorney General Eric Holder’s lie when he was asked whether the government contemplated prosecutions of journalists even though he had already signed off on a court document in which Fox News’s James Rosen was labeled a “co-conspirator” and a flight risk.
But though I have little sympathy for Clapper, whose policy positions on the Islamist threat are highly questionable, lumping him together with Holder would not be fair. Far from being an honest probe into what the government was doing, it’s actually yet another example of how congressional grandstanding does the country little good. Wyden, who was already well briefed on PRISM and other intelligence operations, already knew the answer to the question when he asked it. But he also knew that it would have been inappropriate, if not illegal, for Clapper to answer the question honestly since doing so would have required him to publicly reveal highly classified information that ought not to be made available to America’s enemies. Wyden’s purpose wasn’t to shed light but to merely embarrass Clapper and the administration.
Edward Snowden’s leak about the existence and purpose of PRISM made sure that Wyden’s questioning of Clapper would become a major story, thus giving the Oregon senator the prize he sought. As the clip of Clapper’s lie is shown in a seemingly endless loop on the cable news stations, Wyden is back in the spotlight posturing about the need for “straight talk” from the administration. But the senator, who has carefully built up a reputation as a sober advocate of civil liberties, is the one who is being disingenuous, not Clapper.
Clapper’s attempts to wriggle out of the corner into which Wyden put him are laughable. The attempts to parse his answer to Wyden’s question as being technically truthful don’t work and he should stop trying to claim that he didn’t lie. But a dispassionate view of these circumstances shows that there are times when honesty is not always the best policy.
As guardian of the nation’s secrets, Clapper’s first duty is to ensure that efforts to combat Islamist terror are protected. Whether one likes PRISM or not—and count me among those who regard efforts to depict it as an Orwellian scheme as wrongheaded—the whole purpose of the program would have been undermined had it been made public. Wyden’s goal that day was not to elicit information so much as it was to force Clapper to choose between trashing a legal and necessary security measure and to lie. Though he must have hated doing it—something that showed up clearly in his body language as he told the lie—I can’t blame him for sacrificing his own credibility in order to protect a national secret.
Unlike Holder, who had no security or policy reason to lie about his targeting of James Rosen when he lied to Congress about that issue, Clapper was faced with a real dilemma and probably chose the lesser of two evils.
The real culprit that day was Wyden, who used the bully pulpit of a Senate committee hearing to create a sound byte. His pious declamations about his goals notwithstanding, by asking that question in public, he was seeking to trash a measure that by all accounts has been helpful in defending the nation. Like so many senators and members of Congress who have used hearings to posture more than legislate, Wyden’s question was pure theater. Rather than this episode being an example of administration misconduct, it was actually one that illustrated what happens when a senator gets the chance to grandstand in front of a television camera.
Whatever we may think of Clapper, he doesn’t deserve the opprobrium he has been getting on this issue. If anyone deserves our disdain here it is the senator who placed his ideological agenda ahead of the country’s national security needs.