The least untruthful answer

Official portrait of Director of National Inte...

Official portrait of Director of National Intelligence . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence, was asked in March, whilst under oath in Congress, “Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”.  He answered, “No, sir.”

The recent revelations of ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggest this was a straightforward lie.  But was it?  Clapper has since said that he “responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least untruthful manner”.  The phrase has been much mocked, but was he in fact offering a form of the truth?  As senior intelligence officers aren’t supposed to lie to Congress, it’s a very important question.

This is how the congressional transcript goes:

Senator Wyden: “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.”

Clapper’s defence is that he was referring to the putative “dossiers” that Senator Wyden mentioned in the first part of the question.  It is true (we are told) that the NSA does not hold detailed dossiers on millions of Americans.  It does (we now know) record at least the communications metadata (numbers called, call duration etc) for millions of Americans, but it doesn’t listen in on their calls or read their emails.  Clapper offered a metaphor of a vast library of data on Americans, for which the NSA only kept a record of book numbers, not their contents: “What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers of those books in the metaphorical library.  To me, collection of a U.S. person’s data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it.”

So the issue becomes one of definitions.  What do we mean by “collect”, “dossiers” and “data”?  Whether or not you think the DNI was lying to Congress depends on how flexible you believe the meanings of these words can be.

What’s interesting about this case is that the truthfulness of the response (“No, sir”) is determined by how the question that came before might reasonably be interpreted.  As long as people disagree about the question, Director Clapper can maintain he was offering a form of truth in his brief answer.

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