Clapper: We should have told you we were spying on you

National intelligence director says if public had been told about bulk data collection, it would have accepted it

Published February 18, 2014 2:37PM (EST)

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in an interview published Monday in the Daily Beast that the government should have been transparent with the American people about the bulk collection of their call data.

Clapper, who lied under oath in front of Congress about the existence of bulk data collection programs, commented:

I probably shouldn’t say this, but I will. Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11—which is the genesis of the 215 program—and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap, we need to make sure this never happens to us again, so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards… We wouldn’t have had the problem we had.

What did us in here, what worked against us was this shocking revelation... If the program had been publicly introduced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, most Americans would probably have supported it. I don’t think it would be of any greater concern to most Americans than fingerprints. Well people kind of accept that because they know about it. But had we been transparent about it and say here’s one more thing we have to do as citizens for the common good, just like we have to go to airports two hours early and take our shoes off, all the other things we do for the common good, this is one more thing.

The spy chief's statements here are significant in a number of ways. First, we should see Clapper's admission that transparency would have been preferable as yet further vindication of Edward Snowden's act of whistle-blowing. Without Snowden's leaks, not only would the bulk collection programs still be shrouded in secrecy, but the very legal opinions that enabled such data hoarding under the Patriot Act would have remained a state secret too.

Clapper's suggestion that the American public would have been accepting if it been informed about the fact of such dragnet surveillance is a troubling one. The bulk hoarding of call records is a much more sophisticated surveillance technology than the databasing of fingerprints. Clapper's alignment of the two fails to recognize this. Certainly, both fingerprint and communications databases are part of a mode of governing heavily based on maintaining a trackable, surveillable, countable public. Yet Clapper's assumption that bulk phone data collection would have been readily accepted as a fact of life in the contemporary U.S., like fingerprints, is unfounded. Notably, the intelligence director's comments here align with recent efforts from tech giants like Google to be more transparent about 215 programs. The suggestion is that we would be OK about our totalized state of surveillance, if only we were informed properly of this fact. Such a focus on transparency alone is a clear diversion from any efforts to actually fight for robust privacy protections.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

215 Edward Snowden James Clapper National Intelligence Nsa Patriot Act Privacy Surveillance