With the sudden revelations of how the government is culling the records of all Verizon customers without any probably cause, and how Prism is used to spy on people (Americans?) via Google, Facebook, and other internet services, it is worth inquiring why we haven’t discovered all this before now. Did no one ever investigate the possibility? Perhaps Congress considered the whole idea so unthinkable in America that they never asked.
No, they did ask. Those in charge of national security assured Congress that nothing wrong was going on. The National Journal asked DNI James Clapper about this:
“Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Thursday that he stood by what he told Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in March when he said that the National Security Agency does not “wittingly” collect data on millions of Americans. ‘What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ e-mails. I stand by that,’ Clapper told National Journal in a telephone interview.”
Here is the exchange, reproduced by Olivier Knox at the Yahoo News blog, “The Ticket.” I kept his boldface emphasizing the most significant part of the exchange:
Wyden: “And this is for you, Director Clapper, again on the surveillance front. And I hope we can do this in just a yes or no answer, because I know Sen. Feinstein wants to move on. Last summer the NSA director was at a conference and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, ‘… the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.’ The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. 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.”
Wyden: “All right. Thank you. I’ll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.”
Notice that nothing is said about e-mails. Clapper was asked about “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”
Clapper was not the only one giving false assurance. The director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, also made claims about not collecting data on millions of Americans, saying, “To think we’re collecting on every U.S. person… that would be against the law.
I don’t know yet how this is going to all shake down. Right now, however, the Wall Street Journal (along with many others) has reported:
“The National Security Agency’s monitoring of Americans includes customer records from the three major phone networks as well as emails and Web searches, and the agency also has cataloged credit-card transactions, said people familiar with the agency’s activities.”
When Congressmen ask government executives questions, they are acting as representatives of the people who are making sure the government is operating within legal limits. If these people are in the habit of lying to Congress, I think there need to be consequences for them and their agencies.