Jacob Sullum
July 4, 2013

This week Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a June 21 letter in which he apologized for his “clearly erroneous” answer to a question from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) about mass data collection by the National Security Agency. This represents Clapper’s third explanation for his failure to tell the truth, and for all I know he is coming up with a fourth even as I write. He might be better off if he picked one and stuck with it.

Here is the question that Wyden posed at a March 12 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee:

Last summer the NSA director was at a conference, and he was asked a question about the NSA surveillance of Americans. He replied, and I quote here, “the story that we have millions or hundreds of millions of dossiers on people is completely false.”

The reason I’m asking the question is, having served on the [intelligence] committee now for a dozen years, I don’t really know what a dossier is in this context. So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

And here is Clapper’s answer:

No, sir.

Wyden knew this was not true, because as a member of the intelligence committee he had been briefed about the NSA’s then-secret database of all domestic telephone records, collected under a controversial interpretation of the PATRIOT Act. So Wyden gave Clapper another chance:

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