It was last March when the country’s director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, appeared before a Senate committee, and with the cameras rolling, took an oath to tell the truth, then hunched over, scratched his brow and proceeded to lie. It came in response to a direct question from Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. In the days that followed, Mr. Clapper offered an explanation to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, arguing that he had, in essence, been blindsided by a confusing question and had answered it as best he could under the circumstances. He gave, he said, “the least untruthful” answer that he could.
Mr. Wyden, a longtime member of the Intelligence Committee, made it clear following the interview that he had not blindsided Mr. Clapper. On June 11, Mr. Wyden wrote, “So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the testimony was over, my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer.” Needless to say, he didn’t.
Last week, his remarks and performance came back to bite him as Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, called for Mr. Clapper’s resignation and insisted that he should be prosecuted for perjury. Mr. Clapper and his friends in the media and the Obama administration had no doubt thought he’d gotten away with what Mr. Sensenbrenner is now insisting was a criminal act, but the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden proved without much room for doubt that he was, in fact, lying back in March. Mr. Sensenbrenner, who has been outraged by the way the National Security Agency and the administration have expanded the meaning of language in the USA Patriot Act that he drafted, wants him to pay.
It’s worth taking a minute to go back to that hearing, in which Mr. Wyden asked Mr. Clapper very specifically, “Does the National Security Agency collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Mr. Clapper furrowed his brow, scratched his head and said, “No sir, it does not.”
He could not have attempted such an answer after the Snowden revelations, but at the time, Mr. Clapper may well have thought he’d gotten away with keeping what his minions were up to from the Senate committee charged with overseeing our intelligence operations. It was his attempt to do just that which triggered Mr. Sensenbrenner’s anger.
The congressman, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, was the main author of the USA Patriot Act. He points out that oversight of the activities of the executive branch is a core mission of the Congress under the Constitution and that lying to a congressional committee is illegal because if Congress cannot rely on the truthfulness of those charged with executing the laws, it can hardly fulfill its oversight responsibilities. The problem is, of course, that the decision to go after Mr. Clapper has to be made not by Mr. Sensenbrenner or his congressional colleagues, but by the Obama administration’s Justice Department.
Since President Obama has through his press spokesman repeatedly expressed confidence in Mr. Clapper and his judgment, it seems highly unlikely that either Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. or anyone working for him will treat Mr. Sensenbrenner’s demand with the seriousness it deserves.
In 2010, when Mr. Obama appointed Mr. Clapper, he said the man “possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.” Given Mr. Clapper’s failure to alert the president to the fact that his agency was listening into the private phone calls of some of the nation’s closest allies, maybe what the president meant to say is that he values the loyalty of those who will shield him and his office from the responsibilities he supposedly assumed when he was sworn in as president, but he has never modified or backed away from that endorsement of Mr. Clapper.
Mr. Clapper himself is a career military man. He started out as a Marine, moved over to the Air Force and eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant general. He is, no doubt, a patriot as his defenders claim, but his judgment and disregard for the niceties of the law and the Constitution reveal him as a man who should not be in the position of power he now occupies.
Mr. Clapper should have resigned when he was caught lying. When he learned that Gen. David H. Petraeus had been involved in and tried to cover up a rather smelly, but objectively far less serious, domestic affair, he said he went to Mr. Petraeus and advised him “as a friend, colleague and fellow general officer” that he should do the honorable thing and resign.
Mr. Petraeus took that advice for the good of the service and the country. It was the honorable thing to do. It’s a shame that Mr. Clapper doesn’t possess a similar sense of honor.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.