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Intelligence chief says NSA should have been transparent about mass surveillance

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James Clapper
James Clapper

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has weathered a firestorm of criticism in the months since Edward Snowden leaked documents detailing the NSA's bulk surveillance activity. Since then, he has declassified numerous documents as a means of showing transparency on the part of the government. However, in an interview with The Daily Beast, Clapper goes so far as to say that had the agency been transparent about data collection from the beginning, the issue would not have exploded into a scandal.

NSA mass surveillance is like "fire insurance," says Clapper

In Clapper's view, Americans would have welcomed the surveillance that falls under Section 215 of the Patriot Act in the days following 9/11. "I probably shouldn’t say this," said Clapper, "but I will. Had we been transparent about this from the outset right after 9/11 and said both to the American people and to their elected representatives, we need to cover this gap... so here is what we are going to set up, here is how it’s going to work, and why we have to do it, and here are the safeguards… We wouldn’t have had the problem we had." The sentiment makes some sense, though it should be noted that the mobile telephony landscape has changed considerably in the last decade. He would, however, go on to reiterate that the actions the NSA took in the subsequent years are not an illegal abuse of Americans' civil liberties. Instead, the program can be likened to having fire insurance. "I buy fire insurance every year... Never had a fire. But I am not gonna quit buying my fire insurance."

Clapper's statements fell short, however, of offering explanations for his allegedly lying before Congress last March. When asked by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) if the NSA collected information from the American people, he responded with an emphatic no, an answer brought lawmakers down hard on him in the wake of the Snowden leaks. This time he backpedaled, telling The Daily Beast that he simply misunderstood the senator's question. "I was not even thinking of what he was asking about," he said.