Clapper: I Gave 'The Least Untruthful Answer' To Wyden's 'Beating Your Wife' Question On Data Surveillance

from the oh-really-now? dept

There’s been a lot of coverage of the exchange between Senator Ron Wyden and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in which Wyden asked Clapper about whether or not data on millions of Americans has been captured. Here’s the exact text:

Wyden: 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.

If you’d like to see the exchange for yourself, here you go:

Last week, Clapper claimed that he thought that Wyden was only asking him about emails, even though Wyden clearly states “any type of data.” This week, it appears that Clapper is taking a different position, claiming that the question itself was unfair and a form of the loaded question logical fallacy often referred to “have you stopped beating your wife?” which is exactly what Clapper described Wyden’s question as being:


Senator Wyden made quite a lot out of your exchange with him last March during the hearings. Can you explain what you meant when you said that there was not data collection on millions of Americans?


First– as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked– “When are you going to start– stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not– answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

That’s quite an answer. First, let’s go with the big one: Least untruthful manner? In other words, it was a lie, but I could have told bigger lies. But he’s still admitting that it was a lie. Lying to Congress is generally not a good idea. Second: in what possible way is “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” a loaded question of the “when did you stop beating your wife?” variety? There doesn’t seem to be any unjustified assumption within the question at all. It’s a pretty basic question, in which a truthful answer (“yes, we do”) does not lead to a fallacious admission.

So, now we have the Director of National Intelligence lying, admitting to lying, and then blaming the questioner by making two separate false claims about his question (“it was about email” and “it was a loaded question”). Why is he still in this job?

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Comments on “Clapper: I Gave 'The Least Untruthful Answer' To Wyden's 'Beating Your Wife' Question On Data Surveillance”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Why is he still in this job?”

Because he’s a general.

I know that only civil officers of the United States are liable to impeachment. It just never occurred to me that the generals are in charge now. I mean, you hear words like “agency” or “director”, and you think that those must be civil offices. They don’t sound like “Corps of Engineers”.

Anyhow, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper is unimpeachable.

steell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Because he's a General

Yes, that is named after General Mitchell, commonly known as the Father of the USAF.
From Wikipedia:
“Later that year, he was court-martialed for insubordination after accusing Army and Navy leaders of an “almost treasonable administration of the national defense”[2] for investing in battleships instead of aircraft carriers.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“Why is he still in this job?”

Because otherwise the Terrorists would win of course!*

* This excuse may also be applied when caught doing the following:
– tax evasion
– adultery
– arson
– embezzlement
– public nudity
– driving under influence
– taking bribes
– giving bribes
– theft of property
– speeding
– starting a war with a foreign country based on false premises
– starting a civil war based on false premises
– domestic spying
– domestic violence
– public urination
– hijacking a public transport
– destruction of property
– assassination
– kidnapping
– supporting dictators
– bestiality

MrWilson says:

Re: Re: Re:

The irony is that him asking if copyright infringement is immoral or not is a “when did you stop beating your wife?” kind of question.

Morality isn’t absolute. It’s a near infinite spectrum of shades of gray. An occurrence of copyright infringement, without context or detail, cannot be said to be 100% moral or 100% immoral. Nor, for that matter, can any other act.

iambinarymind (profile) says:

He's still in his job because...

He’s still in his job because said job is funded through State force/aggression/violence (or threat thereof) and the victims of said plunder cannot voluntarily take their business elsewhere.

Until we abolish State theft backed by threats of violence (euphemistically known as “taxation”), we will continue to see asshats such as the current Director of National Intelligence within government.

I prefer consensual relationships and voluntary exchange.

Niall (profile) says:

Re: He's still in his job because...

Good luck with those voluntary exchanges when invaders come a-callin’.

What are you, a hippy? πŸ™‚

Seriously, how will you be able to impose US will on the world, taxing them to prop up your economy and citizenry raping the planet without taxes to fund your corporations and military (oh sorry, I already mentioned corporations).

Niall (profile) says:

Re: He's still in his job because...

I also notice that anti-tax libertarians go very quiet when ‘consensual relationships and voluntary exchange’ means paying people more than minimal (if any) money for their ‘freely given’ time and labour, and allowing them any actual rights.

Libertarianism. The wet dream of 1%ers everywhere!

A Nonny Mouse says:


Why is he still in this job?

Because he was prepared to lie, (and did lie) to anyone, including congress?

I would have thought that part of being the head of protecting and revealing secrets would be the ability to keep secrets secret, regardless of who asks (friend, “friend”, or foe).

Note: I don’t think this is *right*, especially for a country which has advertised itself in the past as the homeland of Freedom and Democracy, but it would be why he still has a job.

Nicholas Weaver (profile) says:

Remeber, the NSA uses a different definition...

The NSA defines “collection” as when they actually use the data and get some result from it, with the probable unstated admission that it is only “collected” if they use the data, get some result, and ADMIT that they used the data and got the result.

Its the same linguistic BS that allows Obama to say with a straight face that he only launches robot flying assassins against Americans who are an “imminent” threat, with “imminent” being defined in his lexicon as “well, perhaps, kinda sorta, and its too much of a pain to try to capture or do anything like that so lets just send in the robot flying assassins and be done with it”

Anonymous Coward says:

Mental Gymnastics

I bent my brain around how this could be a loaded question. It hurts to think this way but I kind of see it “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on (millions) or (hundreds of millions) of Americans?”. So the question could be taken as do you spy on millions of Americans or do you spy on hundreds of millions of Americans. He just parsed the question incorrectly (possibly intentionally) to make it a loaded question.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mental Gymnastics

He bent it that way so that it would give him an out and from watching the exchange he knows he’s lying from the moment he answers. Notice how he is looking down when he answers, trying to hide his facial expressions a little behind his hand then he looks up to see if Wyden is buying it, looks down again, repeats the answer (as if saying it again will make it more believable) and then looks up again to check to see if he’s buying it before he adds the “not unwittingly” clarification to try to make it more believable and give him an out if something is found. It’s only when Wyden says “Thank you” without pressing him further that he sits back and relaxes.

ChronoFish (profile) says:

I'm surprised

In all of this, I’m surprised. Especially with the TechDirt – /. crowd, that nobody has seen the obvious link.

NSA is only asking for phone numbers (and call durations). There are claims that need to be looked at deeper about Google, Facebook, et al giving the NSA access to their data in one form or another. What do the two have in common?

Every *major* social media site is requesting that your account be validated by your cell phone.

It’s an obvious way to tie the two data sources together. And it gives the NSA a cover (“we are not looking at phone account information”). At least not from the phone company….


John85851 (profile) says:

Re: I'm surprised

Yes, millions of people willingly give out their personal information to Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc, but the issue is that the NSA took the information without permission. All the NSA staffers really had to do with friend people on Facebook and they could have easily gotten all this data (plus photos, “check-in” locations, and rambling status updates) without any issues.

But this is the government and they have to try to keep things secret.

Dennis Ashendorf says:

Lying to Congress

Committing perjury in Congressional testimony was once considered a great crime. Now it’s OK. Both parties want to be able for their people to lie to Congress. I assume that only private citizens are held culpable.

The irony of the Snowden leaks is that the government can spy on its citizens, but we’re not even allowed to know who gives money to politicians!

PW (profile) says:

From the "I hasBigBalls" department

Check this story out:

Of specific interest are Clapper’s statements like:

But in an interview with NBC News, portions of which aired on Sunday, he called the disclosures “literally gut-wrenching” and said they had caused “huge, grave damage” to US intelligence capabilities.

“The NSA has filed a crimes report on this already,” Clapper told NBC, referring to the leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

He said he was “profoundly offended” that a disgruntled intelligence officer was a source for the leak to the Post. “This is someone who for whatever reason has chosen to violate a sacred trust for this country,” he said.

Wow! Someone should explain to him that “deeply offended” is an understatement of how we feel about his actions and that lying to Congress should more than offend him, it should incarcerate him πŸ˜‰

DNY (profile) says:


“There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect?but not wittingly.”

How does one inadvertently or unwittingly collect data [of any type] on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

The question wasn’t whether the NSA collected any data on Americans — in which case, I jolly well hope they do, provided said Americans are in direct contact with people we reasonably suspect of being Al Qaeda or foreign intelligence operatives — it wasn’t whether the NSA collected any data on innocent Americans — in which case the answer would have been responsive, and a follow up on how often this happens could have been asked. The question was “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

If NSA data collection on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans were really inadvertent, then there be a different type of scandal here about the competence of the folks running the NSA.

Grady (profile) says:

DNY almost had it.

I want understand why so many of you are too blind to see that the question was in fact loaded.

If Clapper had said yes, then he had to admit that they collected data on Americans, then have to tell Wyden that he cant tell him what data, or how much, because of National Security. And lets be honestly, no matter what your view of its morality, collecting data, innocent data or not, is in the best interest of a government. The biggest threat to any security system is who it protects.

And we all see what happened when he said no. What was the guy to say? It was loaded.

And no. I don’t think its right to spy on your people and lie about it. The gov’t should come out and admit to spying on us. We’ll get over it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: DNY almost had it.

A question that reveals incriminating details is not a loaded question. Lets use an example. Clapper recently got back from a business trip. We ask where he went and what he did on his last official business trip, which is a perfectly legitimate question. It cannot be a loaded question because it makes no unjustified assumptions. That he took a trip officially on business is a given fact.

However if he was actually in Las Vegas and never conducted business and was actually getting blackout drunk on expensive mixed drinks on the public dime answering would incriminate him. If he was doing nothing wrong the honest answer would have been exculpatory, say meeting with an intelligence committee in Fort Worth, Texas.

Zimzat (profile) says:

Re: Re: DNY almost had it.

This reminded me of the “If you’ve got nothing to hide then…” response we often get. Maybe we should use that back on them? If their methods are all on the up-and-up then they don’t have anything to hide and it should be okay if we go digging through all their dirty laundry until we find something to incriminate them on, right? πŸ˜€

Jose_X (profile) says:

A case can be made that Clapper didn't lie, etc.

>> Least untruthful manner? In other words, it was a lie, but I could have told bigger lies. But he’s still admitting that it was a lie.

Did he lie? Did he admit to lying? I don’t think either. [Ie, we can argue the opposite is true.]

Q1: Did he lie to Congress?

First, you left important info out.

Wyden: So, what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question…

To this Clapper said “no sir”

It seems Clapper could not answer yes or no and be truthful if the question was loaded (assume he believed the question was loaded). It would be truthful for Clapper to answer “no sir” to that question, to the question on whether he could answer yes or no to a second question.

Now, while he might have meant, no sir, I can’t give you a yes or no truthful answer.. he was probably trying to pick one of the 2 options that he felt was most accurate and closest to the truth to answer the embedded question. [Note, that if he was addressing the primary Wyden question, then he is being truthful if he felt the embedded question was not answerable truthfully by “yes” or “no”.]

In trying to pick the best answer to the embedded question, “yes” or “no”, he necessarily would have to lie or at least temporarily withhold the full truthful response.

However, he did follow up with a brief explanation, “not wittingly”.

So he answered “no” to the loaded question (or perhaps even to whether he could give yes/no) and then followed up with a bit of explanation to clarify.

So where is the lie?

To have a lie, he has to believe he was hiding information or saying an untruth. Assuming he thought he was being asked about the collection of ordinary data, his full response of “no, sir, not wittingly,” is then likely not a lie to Wyden.

Q2: Could Clapper possibly have thought that “any type of data at all on” Americans was not referring to meta-data but only to emails and the like?

Possibility 1: This is not an attempt to deceive if he believed “any type of data at all on” refers to data created by a person and which the intelligence agency then collects. In this case, metadata would not count but email data created by the person would.

I think Clapper would be wrong in that interpretation because of what I interpret the phrase “information on” to mean, but it’s conceivable Clapper would have interpreted “information from”.

Possibility 2: Alternatively, he might consider that the NSA is harvesting data not linked to any person until the point at which an effort is made to look at and interpret specific data. Eg, I might consider not to be collecting information on Mike if I have a random super-server and simply store everything that passes through it and make no effort to discern the data, some of the data which might be related to Mike. Another example is that I might keep a video on all the time, aimed at the front of my store, and saved, but I would not consider to be keeping info on Mike (or on anyone) just because Mike (or someone else) may have passed through there until I make an effort to identify data and categorize it under “Mike”. Until that last point, I have no idea if I have anything on Mike or on anyone in particular. I have no bits of value associated with any person.

So, potential meta-data that has not been analyzed to actually belong to someone specific would not be data found inside any traditional dossier. Only when an effort is made to gather and order, can a dossier exist. Clapper could reasonably be ignoring unprocessed meta-data banks to not yet be data on any American.

I agree the first possibility sounds fishy and he may have been dishonest if that was his claim, but it could be difficult to “ascertain” he was lying. You would have to be in his mind, and, in the end, his story is consistent if he simply misunderstood the question from Wyden a little bit. However, the second possibility sounds reasonable to me. Again, you would have to be reading his mind or find more evidence to say with any confidence that Clapper was being dishonest with the “wife beater” interpretation of Wyden’s data question.

Q3: Was the question about email?

According to Wyden it was not, but a reasonable alternative interpretation (possibility 2 above) exists.

If the meaning of a question is decided by the beholder of the question, then Clapper is as correct as Wyden; otherwise, Clapper was wrong but would not be lying if he believed his reasonable interpretation (and which actually might be the interpretation of many in intelligence gathering communities).

Q4: Could Wyden be construed to have been asking a loaded question of the wife-beating variety?

Well, if “collect” refers to *policy* of the NSA (a very reasonable interpretation of that embedded question Wyden asked), then the answer would be “no” (remember, Clapper is ignoring meta-data).

But if the question means, has the NSA *ever* collected any data…, then the answer would be “yes”.

So, depending on which of the above two interpretations one takes of Wyden’s question (assuming the no meta-data view), the answer would differ, although you can try to answer more thoroughly to cover each case.

And that is what Clapper ended up doing through the follow-up brief explanation.

Q5: Did Clapper admit to lying?

He said:

“I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked– “When are you going to start– stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not– answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no”

In the above context, that can hardly be considered an admission of committing perjury. I doubt anyone who believed s/he gave the most accurate answer to a loaded question is admitting guilt/perjury/lying.

Specifically, he said he gave the “most truthful, or least untruthful” reply. He didn’t say he lied or committed perjury. Above, it was argued that he would not be lying if he had a certain reasonable interpretation of Wyden’s question, so it would make no sense in that context to believe he was confessing to anything resembling perjury.

To Summarize the argument above that can get Clapper off the hook:

Q1: Did he lie to Congress?

No. He answered correctly the question he thought he was being asked, with “no, sir, not wittingly.” It’s not a lie unless it is untruthful and intentional.

Q2: Could Clapper possibly have thought that “any type of data at all on” Americans was not referring to meta-data but only to emails and the like?

Yes, according to the following reasonable interpretation of Wyden’s question. Random unprocessed data in bulk does not constitute a dossier on anyone. The data must be specific and linked to a person to be considered data collected on that person.

An analogous situation supports this view. Filming and storing everything in front of your store does not mean you are collecting data on “Mike” if Mike happens to pass by. You would be collecting data on Mike only when you process the bulk data and link it appropriately with a person named “Mike”.

Q3: Was the question about email?

If the meaning of a question need not be unique, then Clapper can have a good argument that it was about email.

Q4: Could Wyden be construed to have been asking a loaded question of the wife-beating variety?

Yes, because two different ways to interpret his question (while also interpreting it as referring to emails) exist yet each comes with the opposite answer. “No, sir, not wittingly” answers both of these interpretations. One interpretation is solely about the policy of the NSA. The other interpretation is about the achieved results of the collection process and would include errors.

Q5: Did Clapper admit to lying?

No. He never stated literally that he lied, and it would make no sense for him to admit to something that he likely believes is not true. He admitted to giving the best answer to a loaded question. He used the words “truthful” and “untruthful” but not “lie”, which is a word that means something different.

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