Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sought to clarify his claim that the National Security Agency does not collect information on millions of Americans, telling NBC News' Andrea Mitchell that he gave the "least untruthful" answer possible on the agency's surveillance program.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked the intelligence czar if the NSA gathers "any type of data at all on millions of Americans.”
"No, sir," Clapper responded. "Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."
Clapper's response appears to contradict recent revelations about the agency's large scale phone records collection program, first reported on by the Guardian last week. However, during the NBC interview, Clapper said Wyden's question did not have a straightforward answer.
"I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked -- 'When are you going to start -- stop beating your wife' kind of question, which is meaning not -- answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no," Clapper said in the interview, which aired Sunday. "So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying 'no'."
Clapper said his remarks also reflected his definition of "collection," which he said has a specific meaning in an intelligence context.
"What I was thinking of is looking at the Dewey Decimal numbers-- of those books in that metaphorical library-- to me, collection of U.S. persons' data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it," he said.
In a Tuesday statement, Wyden said he had notified Clapper of his question in advance, and had given his office a chance to give a "straight answer" after the March hearing.
“So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance. After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer,” Wyden said. “Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives."