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Intel chief wrongly claims government wasn't collecting data on millions

By Phillip Swarts

Friday - 6/14/2013, 5:40pm  ET

Controversy has engulfed the National Security Agency after it was revealed the office - and others like it - were collecting citizens' phone and e-mail records.  The public revelations have split Congress, with some lawmakers defending the program as an effective way to fight terrorism, and others viewing it as the first step to the totalitarian "Big Brother" depicted in George Orwell's classic, 1984.

The agency's activities, exposed by a leaker, also have provided Americans a healthy debate about whether their government officials have been truthful about their surveillance efforts.

Just three months ago, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper flat out denied the NSA was collecting data about millions of Americans.  

Here's his exchange with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March.

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

The problem is that the NSA and other agencies are, in fact, wittingly capturing such data. One such program secretly collects call logs from most Americans' telephone lines into a database that later can be tapped by officials who obtain warrants to look at the information of specific players it fears are engaged in terrorism or other wrongdoing. The records can show who talked to each other and for how long, but not the content of the conversations.

The other program, called PRISM, collects foreigners' Internet usage and does sweep up some content of exchanges like email or social posts. But officials say it affects Americans far less because it is focused overseas.

Nonetheless, officials now acknowledge since the leak of documents by former NSA contractor Edward Sowden about the two programs that millions of Americans' records are being collected.

That’s why Clapper wins the Whopper of the Week, a Washington Guardian distinction given to examples of verbal two-stepping, stretched facts and inaccurate statements by members of the government.

Wyden also clearly feels like Clapper was skirting the truth, and said he gave the question to the director's office a day in advance of the hearing so that Clapper could prepare.

"Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures, and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," Wyden said in a statement following the public revelation of the spying program.

Clapper, meanwhile, defended his answer.

“I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner, by saying no,” he said.

It’s likely Clapper didn’t want a public revelation of some of the NSA’s programs.  He has long been critical of discussing sensitive and secret matters in the open-to-the-public-and-media realm of congressional committee hearings.

“I have serious reservations about conducting open hearings on the worldwide threat,” Clapper said at the start of that same committee hearing.  “While I believe it’s important to keep the American public informed about the threats our nation faces, I believe that can be done through unclassified opening statements and statements for the record.”

He added “An open hearing on intelligence matters is something of a contradiction in terms.”