Greg Miller, at the Washington Post, has a great article discussing the government's continued misinformation campaign
over its surveillance activities, going back through history to point out that this is nothing new:
President George W. Bush at times engaged in similarly careful phrasing to defend surveillance programs in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In 2004, while calling for renewal of the Patriot Act, Bush sought to assuage critics by saying "the government can't move on wiretaps or roving wiretaps without getting a court order."
At the time, it had not yet been publicly disclosed that Bush had secretly authorized NSA surveillance of communications between U.S. residents and contacts overseas while bypassing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
When the wiretapping operation was exposed in the news media two years later, Bush defended it as a program "that listens to a few numbers, called from outside of the United States, and of known al-Qaeda or affiliate people." Subsequent revelations have made clear that the scope was far greater than his words would suggest.
He also discusses the way that defenders of the NSA's surveillance program use things like redefining the word "target" -- something we've been pointing out
for a while now:
Obama's assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.
"What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails," Obama said in his June 17 interview on PBS's "Charlie Rose Show."
But even if it is not allowed to target U.S. citizens, the NSA has significant latitude to collect and keep the contents of e-mails and other communications of U.S. citizens that are swept up as part of the agency's court-approved monitoring of a target overseas.
That said, what may be most interesting is the revelation that James Clapper has now admitted
to lying to Congress, in responding to Ron Wyden's questions
In early June, after the NSA leaks had brought renewed attention to Clapper's "No, sir," Clapper cited the difficulty of answering a question about a classified program and said in an interview on NBC News that he had responded in the "least most untruthful manner."
He made a new attempt to explain the exchange in his June 21 correspondence, which included a hand-written note to Wyden saying that an attached letter was addressed to the committee chairman but that he "wanted [Wyden] to see this first."
Clapper said he thought Wyden was referring to NSA surveillance of e-mail traffic involving overseas targets, not the separate program in which the agency is authorized to collect records of Americans' phone calls that include the numbers and duration of calls but not individuals' names or the contents of their calls.
Referring to his appearances before Congress over several decades, Clapper concluded by saying that "mistakes will happen, and when I make one, I correct it."
This is unbelievable on a variety of levels. First off, as Wyden made clear, his office had sent Clapper the question a day before
the hearing so that he knew the question was coming. To argue that he was confused about the question is quite unbelievable. Furthermore, Senator Wyden claimed that: "after the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer." Clapper now says that his staff "acknowledged the error to Senator Wyden soon after the hearing," but if that's the case, it doesn't appear that anyone else seems to know about this. Furthermore, if this were true, then wouldn't Clapper have said this
back in early June when people first started asking about those statements? But he did not. This sounds like after-the-fact rationalizations for lying to Congress and being called on it.
Similarly, Chris Soghoian rightly mocks Clapper
for the claim that "mistakes will happen, and when I make one, I correct it," by pointing out that Clapper appears to have left off a few important caveats to the end of that sentence: "3 months later, after a front-page scandal."
On top of that, we're talking about perjury, in lying to Congress. If other people perjure themselves, do they get to -- many months later -- go back and say "whoops, my bad" and get away with it?
Finally, when looked at in the context of Clapper's previous answer that he gave the "least untruthful"
answer to Wyden, in which he suggested that he fully understood the question, would that now compound the lies? Did he give the least untruthful answer to a complex question, or did he not understand the question. He's now claimed both, and under either case, he seems to be continuing to lie, rather than answer honestly.
Unfortunately, it appears that Clapper is likely to get away with blatant lying to Congress as well, as experts are saying there's almost no chance of prosecution in this case
. Why? Well, in part because apparently everyone seems to accuse everyone else of lying to Congress so frequently that no one pays any attention to when it actually happens.
Liar-liar-pants-on-fire charges have become so ordinary and expected in Washington, that few pay serious attention to them. Such charges are understood as merely another weapon in the partisan's arsenal.
But there is another reality about false statements to Congress. Lying is always easy to charge, but never easy to prove. Before anyone can be formally and criminally charged with lying to Congress, the committee before which the purported false testimony was given must vote to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia for prosecution.
Such votes are not easily nor lightly taken. Such a referral for prosecution cannot be based on a hunch or a hope; rather it requires solid evidence that one or more of the relevant statutes has been violated, along with supporting evidence.
That article also notes that there have been "less than a dozen successful prosecutions of witnesses testifying falsely before Congress." Of course, in this case, unlike elsewhere, we have Clapper flat out admitting
to lying to Congress. In fact, as the article notes above, Clapper's admission shows that he violated three
separate relevant laws. So the "proof" is a lot lower a burden. And yet, still nothing is likely to be done. As that article notes, the prosecutions tend to be around scandals that have pissed off Congress, and that doesn't appear to the case here (ridiculously).
In other words, there's almost certainly no punishment for lying to Congress, and the NSA and other intelligence officials have a long history of basically doing just that, knowing that there's no harm in it. In fact, as that article notes, Clapper's eventual "punishment" is likely to be that he leaves his current job to get a "much higher salary, as an executive in the private sector that provides most of America's digital-intelligence operations."