JUNE 11, 2013
Earlier Denials Put Intelligence Chief in Awkward Position
By SCOTT SHANE and JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON -- For years, intelligence officials have tried to debunk what they called a popular myth about the National Security Agency: that its electronic net routinely sweeps up information about millions of Americans. In speeches and Congressional testimony, they have suggested that the agency's immense power is focused exclusively on terrorists and other foreign targets, and that it does not invade Americans' privacy.
But since the disclosures last week showing that the agency does indeed routinely collect data on the phone calls of millions of Americans, Obama administration officials have struggled to explain what now appear to have been misleading past statements. Much of the attention has been focused on testimony  by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, to the Senate in March that the N.S.A. was not gathering data on millions of Americans.
When lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Tuesday for the first time since the N.S.A. disclosures, however, the criticism was muted.
In carefully delivered statements, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio; Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader; and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, all said the programs were authorized by law and rigorously overseen by Congress and courts.
In contrast, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat whose questioning prompted Mr. Clapper's statement in March, stepped up his criticism of how intelligence officials portrayed the surveillance programs and called for public hearings to address the disclosures. "The American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," he said in a statement.
And Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, said he had come away from a closed-door briefing by intelligence officials for House members believing that the N.S.A. had too much latitude and too little oversight.
"Right now we have a situation where the executive branch is getting a billion records a day, and we're told they will not query that data except pursuant to very clear standards," Mr. Sherman said. "But we don't have the courts making sure that those standards are always followed."
Many lawmakers trained their sights on Edward J. Snowden, the intelligence contractor who leaked classified documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Mr. Boehner called him a traitor.
Mr. McConnell told reporters: "Given the scope of these programs, it's understandable that many would be concerned about issues related to privacy. But what's difficult to understand is the motivation of somebody who intentionally would seek to warn the nation's enemies of lawful programs created to protect the American people. And I hope that he is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
The comments of the Senate leaders showed a coordinated effort to squelch any legislative move to rein in the surveillance programs. Mr. Reid took the unusual step of publicly slapping back at fellow senators -- including senior Democrats -- who have suggested that most lawmakers have been kept in the dark about the issue.
"For senators to complain that they didn't know this was happening, we had many, many meetings that have been both classified and unclassified that members have been invited to," Mr. Reid said. "They shouldn't come and say, 'I wasn't aware of this,' because they've had every opportunity."
Among lawmakers who have expressed concerns in the past, however, the issues have not been laid to rest. When reporters pressed Mr. Wyden on whether Mr. Clapper had lied to him, he stopped short of making that accusation, but made his discontent clear.
"The president has said -- correctly, in my view -- that strong Congressional oversight is absolutely essential in this area," he said. "It's not possible for the Congress to do the kind of vigorous oversight that the president spoke about if you can't get straight answers."
At the March Senate hearing, Mr. Wyden asked Mr. Clapper, "Does the N.S.A. collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"
"No, sir," Mr. Clapper replied. "Not wittingly."
Mr. Wyden said on Tuesday that he had sent his question to Mr. Clapper's office a day before the hearing, and had given his office a chance to correct the misstatement after the hearing, but to no avail.
In an interview on Sunday with NBC News, Mr. Clapper acknowledged that his answer had been problematic, calling it "the least untruthful" answer he could give.
Michael V. Hayden, the former director of both the N.S.A. and the C.I.A., said he considered Mr. Wyden's question unfair, given the classified subject. "There's not another country in the world where that question would have been asked and answered in a public session," he said.
Some other statements of N.S.A. officials appear in retrospect to offer a mistaken impression of the agency's collection of information about Americans. Mr. Wyden said he had pressed Mr. Clapper on the matter because he had been dissatisfied with what he felt were misleading answers from Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the N.S.A. director. And in a recent speech, the N.S.A.'s general counsel, Rajesh De, sought to debunk what he called "false myths" about the agency, including the idea that "N.S.A. is spying on Americans at home and abroad with questionable or no legal basis."
While that may be literally true -- there is a legal basis -- it appears awkward in retrospect that Mr. De's defense of the agency failed to mention its collection of phone data on Americans.
"It's a fine line he was treading," said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian and author of "The Secret Sentry," a 2009 book on the N.S.A. "But trying to talk around these secret programs just makes matters worse."
The solution, he said, is for intelligence officials to share more information about what the N.S.A. does and why. "Actually be forthright with the American people," he said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that she had asked General Alexander to declassify more information about the surveillance programs -- like terrorist plots that might have been foiled -- to help explain their usefulness.
"If we can get that declassified, we can speak much more clearly," she said.
Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.