The 'Least Untruthful' National Security State

The question Senator Ron Wyden asked on March 12 of last year was straightforward enough and no surprise for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. He had been given it a day in advance of his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and after he was done, Senator Wyden and his staff offered him a chance to "amend" his answer if he wished. Did the National Security Agency, Wyden wanted to know, gather "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans"? Being on that committee and privy to a certain amount of secret intelligence information, Wyden already knew the correct answer to the question. Clapper, with a day to prepare, nonetheless answered, "No, sir. Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."

That was a bald-faced lie, though Clapper would later term it the "least untruthful" thing he felt he could say. As we now know, the NSA was, among many other things, gathering the phone "data" of every American and storing it for future use. In other words, after some forethought, the director perjured himself.

Mind you, Clapper isn't exactly shy about charging other people with implicit crimes. In recent testimony before Congress, he demanded that whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden "and his accomplices" return all agency documents. It was a stunning use of a term whose only meaning is criminal and clearly referred to the journalists -- Glenn Greenwald, filmmaker Laura Poitras, and reporters from the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among other papers -- who have been examining and writing about the Snowden documents.

It caught something of the chutzpah of the top officials who run Washington's national security state -- and little wonder that they feel emboldened and demanding. After all, not only is Clapper not going to be charged with perjury, but he has retained his post without a blink. He has kept the "support" of President Obama, who recently told CNN's Jake Tapper (in what passes these days for a rebuke of our surveiller-in-chief), "Jim Clapper himself would acknowledge, and has acknowledged, that he should have been more careful about how he responded." More careful indeed!

I've long argued that while we, the citizens of the U.S., remain in legal America, the U.S. national security state exists in "post-legal America" because no illegal act from warrantless surveillance to torture committed in its service will ever be prosecuted. So it's no surprise that Clapper won't even be forced to resign for lying to Congress. He's free as a bird and remains powerful indeed. Tell that to some of our whistleblowers.

In his latest post, "Selling Your Secrets," CorpWatch's Pratap Chatterjee offers an anatomy of a surveillance world that grows more, not less, powerful and full of itself with every passing moment and technological advance, a national security world whose global ambitions know no bounds.