Obama Team Stonewalls Democrat on Spying Questions

Ron Wyden pushed for specific answers from Intelligence Director James Clapper and others, but failed to get any details.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 29: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee January 29, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on 'Current and Projected National Security Threats Against the United States.' (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
National Journal
Jack Fitzpatrick
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Jack Fitzpatrick
Jan. 29, 2014, 8:27 a.m.

Ron Wyden wanted dir­ect an­swers on gov­ern­ment spy­ing pro­grams dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee hear­ing. He didn’t get many.

Dir­ect­or of In­tel­li­gence James Clap­per, CIA Dir­ect­or John Bren­nan, and FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey largely avoided giv­ing de­tails on the agen­cies’ spy­ing activ­it­ies, in­stead prom­ising to provide more in­form­a­tion as soon as pos­sible. In sev­er­al cases, Wyden gave dead­lines for them to an­swer his ques­tions.

Wyden, an Ore­gon Demo­crat, is a vo­cal crit­ic of the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency’s pro­gram of gath­er­ing the phone data of mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans. He also has a his­tory of ask­ing poin­ted ques­tions, and even of hint­ing at NSA activ­it­ies in his ques­tions. In a March 2013 hear­ing, be­fore Ed­ward Snowden re­vealed de­tails of the NSA’s mass har­vest­ing of phone-call metadata, Wyden asked Clap­per if the NSA gath­ers “any type of data at all on mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans.” Clap­per answered “no,” which Wyden later said was mis­lead­ing.

At Wed­nes­day’s hear­ing, Wyden asked Bren­nan if the Com­puter Fraud and Ab­use Act, which bans hack­ing in­to private com­puters, ap­plies to the CIA. Bren­nan said he did not know, and prom­ised to an­swer with­in a week.

Wyden also asked Clap­per to provide with­in 30 days a spe­cif­ic ex­ample of a phone re­cord the NSA needed that was so old that the phone com­pany no longer had it. Data-col­lec­tion ad­voc­ates have in­sisted that it is ne­ces­sary for the NSA to store data it­self for the pur­pose of speedy ac­cess, rather than mak­ing in­di­vidu­al re­quests to phone com­pan­ies.

And Wyden asked FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey to an­swer with­in a week wheth­er there is any leg­al dif­fer­ence between ac­cess­ing phone-re­cord in­form­a­tion by us­ing cell-phone towers and us­ing smart­phone apps.

Wyden cri­ti­cized the “cul­ture of mis­in­form­a­tion” at the NSA, say­ing agency Dir­ect­or Keith Al­ex­an­der and oth­ers have pur­pose­fully neg­lected to act trans­par­ently. Wyden ex­pressed even more frus­tra­tion when Clap­per, Bren­nan, and Comey prom­ised to an­swer ques­tions later.

“This com­mit­tee can’t do over­sight if we can’t get dir­ect an­swers,” Wyden said.

Al­though the three some­what dodged ques­tions on the spe­cif­ics of spy­ing activ­it­ies, Clap­per railed against the gen­er­al nature of Ed­ward Snowden’s leaks on NSA sur­veil­lance pro­grams, call­ing them “the most massive and most dam­aging theft of in­tel­li­gence in our na­tion’s his­tory.”

He also called on Snowden to re­turn any more doc­u­ments that he has not yet re­leased. “The na­tion is less safe and its people less se­cure,” be­cause of the Snowden leaks, Clap­per said.

But Clap­per did vow to op­er­ate the NSA in a more open way, in­sist­ing that the pub­lic will ul­ti­mately sup­port most of the agency’s spy­ing activ­it­ies.

“We must lean in the dir­ec­tion of trans­par­ency, wherever and whenev­er we can,” Clap­per said.

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