Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (Susan Walsh/AP)
It certainly looks bad. The revelation that the NSA secretly vacuumed up the telephone records of millions of Verizon customers would seem to fit the definition of "data" and "millions of Americans."
Clapper is denying that he misled anyone, telling the National Journal in a telephone interview: "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mails. I stand by that."
That may have been what Clapper meant. But it wasn't what he said. And it certainly wasn't what he was asked.
Here's the word-for-word exchange in the March hearing of the relevant Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.—who has long warned about excessive government surveillance of Americans, though in veiled terms because the information is classified—had just one question for Clapper. The especially important parts are in bold.
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."
- National Security Agency