WASHINGTON (AP) — A member of Congress asks the director of national intelligence if the National Security Agency collects data on millions of Americans. "No, sir," James Clapper responds. Pressed, he adds a caveat: "Not wittingly."
Then, NSA programs that do precisely that are disclosed.
It turns out that President Barack Obama's intelligence chief lied. Or as he put it last week: "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,' because the program was classified."
The White House stands by him. Press secretary Jay Carney says Obama "certainly believes that Director Clapper has been straight and direct in the answers that he's given." Congress, always adept at performing verbal gymnastics, seems generally unmiffed about Clapper's lack of candor. If there have been repercussions, the public doesn't know about them.
Welcome to the intelligence community, a shadowy network of secrets and lies reserved, apparently, not only for this country's enemies but also for its own citizens.
Sometimes it feels as if the government operates in a parallel universe where lying has no consequences and everyone but the people it represents is complicit in deception. Looking at episodes like this, it's unsurprising that people have lost faith in their elected leaders and the institution of government. This all reinforces what polls show people think: Washington plays by its own rules.
Since when is it acceptable for government — elected leaders or those they appoint — to be directly untruthful to Americans? Do people even care about the deception? Or is this kind of behavior expected these days? After all, most politicians parse words, tell half-truths and omit facts. Some lie outright. It's called spin.
And yet this feels different.
The government quite legitimately keeps loads of secrets from its people for security reasons, with gag orders in effect over top-secret information that adversaries could use against us. But does that authority also give the government permission to lie to its people in the name of their own safety without repercussions? Should Congress simply be accepting those falsehoods?
It wasn't always this way.
Congress was apoplectic when former aides to President Richard Nixon perjured themselves in the Watergate cover-up and when President Bill Clinton was less than truthful during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But in those cases, the issues divided over partisan lines, and classified information relating to national security wasn't involved.
In this instance, most Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill support the underlying NSA programs even though the public is divided over them. And lawmakers aren't quick to hold Clapper accountable because, when it comes to telling the truth to Americans, their hands are hardly clean.
The public, meanwhile, has responded to Clapper's falsehood with a collective shrug. Are we just resigned to this?
Consider the results of 2012 surveys.
One from the Public Affairs Council found that 57 percent of Americans felt that public officials in Washington had below-average honesty and ethical standards. Another from the Pew Research Center found 54 percent of Americans felt the federal government in Washington was mostly corrupt, while 31 percent rated it mostly honest.
Trust in government has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, when a majority of the country placed faith in it most of the time. But by April 2013, an Associated Press-GfK poll had found just 21 percent feeling that way. And people have even less faith in Congress; a new Gallup poll found just 10 percent of Americans say they have confidence in the House and Senate — the lowest level for any institution on record.
In this case, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, long had tried to raise concerns over the scope and breadth of post-9/11 intelligence gathering.
They were privy to the secret techniques but were barred by law from disclosing any classified information. So they had to be subtle.
Discussion on Capitol Hill about top-secret programs usually takes place in a secure room so opponents of the United States won't learn of the details.
Nevertheless, in March — before the programs the senator knew existed had been disclosed to the world — Wyden put Clapper on the spot. The senator asked about the classified intelligence operations, which Clapper was prohibited from talking openly about, in a public committee hearing.
"Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Wyden asked.
"No, sir," Clapper answered.
"It does not?" asked Wyden.
"Not wittingly," Clapper said, offering a more nuanced response. "There are cases where they could, inadvertently perhaps, collect — but not wittingly."
Three months later, a former NSA contractor leaked information on top-secret surveillance programs that do, in fact, file away phone records on millions of Americans. Wittingly.
That, said Udall, "is the type of surveillance I have long said would shock the public if they knew about it."
Within days, Wyden — who says he gave Clapper a heads up a day earlier that he would be asking the question about classified information at an open hearing — accused Clapper of misleading the Senate committee in public and later in private when the intelligence director declined to change his answer from the firm "no" to the question.
"The American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives," Wyden said.
Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., called for Clapper to resign and suggested perjury, saying he "lied under oath to Congress and the American people" and that "Congress can't make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements."
In interviews, Clapper tried to explain.
To National Journal, he said: "What I said was, the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens' e-mail. I stand by that." But Clapper didn't tell the committee during the hearing that he was referring specifically to email, though he did indicate his reservations about being questioned in public on confidential matters.
Clapper also told NBC News that "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner." He added that his response technically wasn't false because of semantics over the word "collection." But he also allowed that his response may have been "too cute by half."
Whatever else it does, the episode illuminates a conflict in our system — one that we dance around whenever the subject of secrets comes up.
The Obama administration says it wants the American people to allow the NSA to do what it must to protect the nation. The president himself has assured Americans that Congress has been in the loop, making sure the NSA isn't going too far. But it's hard to see how a real check on that power is possible if Congress is unable or unwilling to provide actual oversight, much less take action when a key official involved in the program isn't straight with lawmakers.
In this case, it nudges accountability further into the shadows — and gives the American public even less of a stake in the security of the open society that we say we hold so dear.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti is the national politics editor for The Associated Press. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/lsidoti