By dint of a widespread preference for politeness, human beings tend to trip over themselves to find euphemisms for the word “lying.” The questionable among our public servants are charged with “misleading,” “hedging,” and “evading”; they are accused of disseminating “falsehoods,” and they are presumed guilty of “ambiguity” or of being “slippery” and “smooth.” For some reason, however, the L-word is off the table. This instinct is admirable, but its result is not always so. Sometimes, one needs to call a spade a spade.
During a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on March 12 of this year, Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a simple question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper shot back without a pause. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.” Why so? Because “in the case of NSA and CIA, there are strictures against tracking American citizens in the United States for foreign intelligence purposes — and that’s what those agencies are set up to do.”
This message, an explanation to Congress of what the executive branch was up to, was crystal clear: Don’t worry, the NSA is not allowed to track Americans — and it’s not going to. The primary problem with this, as the revelations of last week have demonstrated, is that it was not true.