When introducing James Clapper as his director of national intelligence in 2010, President Obama specifically justified the appointment by saying Clapper is someone who "understands the importance of working with our partners in Congress (and) not merely to appear when summoned, but to keep Congress informed." At the time, it seemed like a wholly uncontroversial statement; it was simply a president making a sacrosanct promise to keep the legislative branch informed, with the insinuation that previous administrations hadn't.
Three years later, of course, James Clapper is now the embodiment of perjury before Congress. Indeed, when you couple Edward Snowden's disclosures with this video of Clapper's Senate testimony denying that the National Security Administration collects "any type of data on millions (of Americans)," Clapper has become American history's most explicit and verifiable example of an executive branch deliberately lying to the legislative branch that is supposed to be overseeing it.
Incredibly (or, alas, maybe not so incredibly anymore), despite the president's original explicit promises about Clapper, transparency and Congress, the White House is nonetheless responding to this humiliating situation by proudly expressing its full support for Clapper. Meanwhile, as of today's announcement by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., the demands for Clapper's resignation are finally being aired on Capitol Hill.
Those demands are obviously warranted not just because Clapper so clearly lied, but also because his was no ordinary spontaneous fib. On the contrary, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Clapper was given a full day's advance notice that the question was coming, and yet he nonetheless still opted to lie. That's not a spur-of-the-moment fib; that's a calculated, willful attempt to mislead those who have a constitutional responsibility to perform oversight.
Seeking to move the national discussion away from the NSA's potential crimes, many politicians and pundits are, not surprisingly, continuing to insist that Snowden revealed only legal programs and is therefore not a whistle-blower. They are, in other words, trying to ignore the fact that whether or not the NSA programs are illegal (and they very well may be) Snowden at minimum revealed a case of potential criminal perjury -- and an extremely serious one at that. As Wyden says, “One of the most important responsibilities a senator has is oversight of the intelligence community (and) this job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
In the former interview, Clapper said he "stand(s) by" his statement to the Senate and insisted, "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails." Of course, as New York magazine points out, that's not what he said -- not even close.
In the latter interview, Clapper again stood by his statement, and claimed, "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner."
These talking points will no doubt metastasize into the idea that because he was asked about a classified program, Clapper had no choice but to lie, and that therefore outright lying is somehow the "least untruthful" -- and therefore acceptable -- thing to do in his situation. That's right, apparently as if living in 1984, we are all supposed to believe that war is peace, freedom is slavery and, now, yes, lying is not untruthful.
Beyond its Orwellian absurdity, the problem with that line of reasoning is that it is fundamentally false. We know Clapper didn't have to lie because other people in a similar position managed to not commit perjury. As one example, at a Senate hearing in 2006, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was asked a similar question about mass surveillance, and answered by saying simply: "The programs and activities you ask about, to the extent that they exist, would be highly classified."
Clapper didn't do this; instead, with a day's notice of the question, he decided to lie to Congress. And, as the New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal says, that's a big deal.
"Government officials employ various tactics to avoid actually saying anything at intelligence hearings, mostly by fogging up the room with references to national security and with vague generalities," he writes. "Outright lying is another matter ... You have to wonder about giving a position of vast responsibility to someone who can beat Mr. Gonzales in dishonesty."
You have to also wonder how a person like that can be allowed to stay in his job and avoid prosecution.