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Column: When lying is acceptable, public loses

Monday - 6/17/2013, 5:18pm  ET

In this photo taken March 12, 2013, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Intelligence Committee. During the public hearing a member of Congress asked Clapper if the National Security Agency collects data on millions of Americans. “No, sir,” said Clapper. Then, NSA programs that do precisely that are disclosed. But those programs are classified, and cannot be discussed in public hearings. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A member of Congress asks the director of national intelligence if the National Security Agency collects data on millions of Americans. "No, sir," James Clapper responds. Pressed, he adds a caveat: "Not wittingly."

Then, NSA programs that do precisely that are disclosed.

It turns out that President Barack Obama's intelligence chief lied. Or as he put it last week: "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,' because the program was classified."

The White House stands by him. Press secretary Jay Carney says Obama "certainly believes that Director Clapper has been straight and direct in the answers that he's given." Congress, always adept at performing verbal gymnastics, seems generally unmiffed about Clapper's lack of candor. If there have been repercussions, the public doesn't know about them.

Welcome to the intelligence community, a shadowy network of secrets and lies reserved, apparently, not only for this country's enemies but also for its own citizens.

Sometimes it feels as if the government operates in a parallel universe where lying has no consequences and everyone but the people it represents is complicit in deception. Looking at episodes like this, it's unsurprising that people have lost faith in their elected leaders and the institution of government. This all reinforces what polls show people think: Washington plays by its own rules.

Since when is it acceptable for government -- elected leaders or those they appoint -- to be directly untruthful to Americans? Do people even care about the deception? Or is this kind of behavior expected these days? After all, most politicians parse words, tell half-truths and omit facts. Some lie outright. It's called spin.

And yet this feels different.

The government quite legitimately keeps loads of secrets from its people for security reasons, with gag orders in effect over top-secret information that adversaries could use against us. But does that authority also give the government permission to lie to its people in the name of their own safety without repercussions? Should Congress simply be accepting those falsehoods?

It wasn't always this way.

Congress was apoplectic when former aides to President Richard Nixon perjured themselves in the Watergate cover-up and when President Bill Clinton was less than truthful during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But in those cases, the issues divided over partisan lines, and classified information relating to national security wasn't involved.

In this instance, most Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill support the underlying NSA programs even though the public is divided over them. And lawmakers aren't quick to hold Clapper accountable because, when it comes to telling the truth to Americans, their hands are hardly clean.

The public, meanwhile, has responded to Clapper's falsehood with a collective shrug. Are we just resigned to this?

Consider the results of 2012 surveys.

One from the Public Affairs Council found that 57 percent of Americans felt that public officials in Washington had below-average honesty and ethical standards. Another from the Pew Research Center found 54 percent of Americans felt the federal government in Washington was mostly corrupt, while 31 percent rated it mostly honest.

Trust in government has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, when a majority of the country placed faith in it most of the time. But by April 2013, an Associated Press-GfK poll had found just 21 percent feeling that way. And people have even less faith in Congress; a new Gallup poll found just 10 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the House and Senate -- the lowest level for any institution on record.

In this case, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, long had tried to raise concerns over the scope and breadth of post-9/11 intelligence gathering.

They were privy to the secret techniques but were barred by law from disclosing any classified information. So they had to be subtle.

Discussion on Capitol Hill about top-secret programs usually takes place in a secure room so opponents of the United States won't learn of the details.

Nevertheless, in March -- before the programs the senator knew existed had been disclosed to the world -- Wyden put Clapper on the spot. The senator asked about the classified intelligence operations, which Clapper was prohibited from talking openly about, in a public committee hearing.

"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden asked.

"No, sir," Clapper answered.

"It does not?" asked Wyden.

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