James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, submitted his resignation letter Wednesday night, announcing he wouldn’t seek to continue a tenure in which the country would enter a fierce debate about the scope of secret surveillance of innocent Americans.
Playing a key role in sparking that debate was Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Having known about the U.S. intelligence agencies’ collection of data on Americans, Wyden sought to force Clapper and Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency until 2014, to admit in public the scope of dragnet surveillance that had ramped up in recent years.
On March 12, 2013, Wyden wanted to get Clapper on the record about how easy it is for U.S. intelligence agencies to collect information on Americans without them ever knowing.
The exchange would cement Wyden as a Senate leader in the push against mass surveillance, and it would affect the way Americans would come to understand and debate domestic and international spying.
“What I would like to do is see if we can get a direct answer to the question about when the intelligence community needs to get a warrant, for example, when a lesser amount of evidence would do,” Wyden started. “And second, the circumstances when no specific evidence is needed at all.”
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked.
“No sir,” Clapper responded.
“It does not?” Wyden said.
“Not wittingly,” Clapper said. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect. But not wittingly.”
As news reports of the exchange came out, a formerly unknown NSA contractor took note. Edward Snowden credited the exchange with Wyden as a reason he would collect information on the mass dragnet surveillance of the NSA and hand it over to journalists who would expose the programs publicly for the first time just two months later.
Snowden knew at the time just how vast the surveillance was, and how easy it was for the agency to use a secret court system to get approval for domestic spying without a warrant. He would later write in a 2014 column that the exchange between Wyden and Clapper was “a major motivating force” to leak the information.
Wyden, who told The Bulletin in May he didn’t think he’d ever spoken with Snowden, said he was meticulous in forming the question. Members of the intelligence committee get maybe 20 minutes each year to ask questions of officials whose answers will be aired publicly, he said.
“If you go back and look at the exact question, you will see that it was based on months and months of going back and forth and particularly trying to get the intelligence leadership to square what they were saying in public with what I knew to be going on in private,” Wyden said.
On Thursday, soon after Clapper announced his resignation, Wyden sent out a statement reminding the public of the intelligence community’s deception under Clapper’s direction, and he warned of the future scope of surveillance under President-elect Donald Trump.
“During Director Clapper’s tenure, senior intelligence officials engaged in a deception spree regarding mass surveillance,” Wyden said. “Top officials, officials who reported to Director Clapper, repeatedly misled the American people and even lied to them.”
He said Trump’s “tendency toward secrecy” — from not releasing his taxes to restricting press access to his response to Russian hacking — was “highly dangerous.”
“In America the truth always comes out eventually,” Wyden said. “And when it does, Americans have proven time and again they will be outraged at the government agencies, officials and politicians who allow secret and expansive interpretations of the law.”
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,