WASHINGTON (AP) — James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, denied Thursday that he lied to Congress about government surveillance last year, and he rolled out a new national intelligence strategy that includes principles of ethics for intelligence officers.
"It has been very disappointing to have my integrity questioned because of a mistake," Clapper told government officials and contractors at a Washington intelligence summit.
Clapper said he misspoke when he denied in a Senate hearing last year that the U.S. was collecting data on millions of Americans. Leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden subsequently showed the National Security Agency has been gathering and storing American telephone calling records for years.
Clapper's explanations for his answer have shifted over time. Initially, Clapper stood by his comments, saying he intended to say that NSA wasn't rummaging through email. Next, he said he gave "the least untruthful" response he could muster. Then, Clapper wrote a letter to Congress last June apologizing for what he acknowledged was a "clearly erroneous" answer and explained that he was thinking of the contents of communications rather than the "to" and "from" calling records that are known as metadata.
Among the seven ethics principles included in the new strategy document is "truth."
The senator who asked Clapper about his denial, Democrat Ron Wyden, knew from classified briefings that Clapper had answered incorrectly. Wyden has said his staff gave Clapper's staff the question in advance, and afterward gave him a chance to amend his answer. That did not happen. The DNI's lawyer, Bob Litt, says Clapper's staff failed to brief him that the question was coming.
"With all due respect for Director Clapper's feelings, the rights of the American people and constitutional oversight of our intelligence programs are more important," Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said by email Thursday.
Clapper, who speaks infrequently in public, made his remarks Thursday as he kicked off an intelligence conference sponsored by two major industry groups. He struck a downbeat tone at times, peppered with the sarcastic humor for which he is known. He complained of budgets cuts, leaks to the news media and an expectation that, as he put it, intelligence can be collected with no risk of embarrassment upon discovery and no threat to anyone's civil liberties.
"We call this immaculate collection," he said to laughter from the audience.
Clapper also lamented that policy makers and the public sometime appear to expect that intelligence agencies have the power of clairvoyance.
On a serious note, Clapper said in a statement accompanying the new strategy that "a perfect storm ... is degrading" U.S. intelligence capabilities. The storm includes "the theft and leak" of NSA documents and "the associated loss of collection capabilities," Clapper said, and "the resulting damaged relationships with foreign and corporate stakeholders."
Clapper said that "the conscious decision to stop collecting on specific targets," stemming from the Snowden fallout adds risk to the American public.
In a question and answer session afterward, Clapper said the disruption of a plot to behead people by supporters of the Islamic State group in Australia underscored the threat posed by homegrown sympathizers of the group, which he said is adept at motivating and recruiting followers.
And Clapper became the first U.S. intelligence official to publicly use the name of a group of al-Qaida fighters in Syria that he said poses a potential threat to the U.S. equal to that of the Islamic State group militants.
The Associated Press reported Saturday that the Khorasan Group is working from Syria with al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate to plot attacks on American aviation. U.S. intelligence officials say it is a cell of veteran al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who are trying to recruit Western extremists to attack Europe and the U.S.
American officials told the AP it posed a more imminent threat than the Islamic State group.