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June 13, 2013 7:48 pm
In March, James Clapper was asked at a Senate hearing if the US government collected information on millions of Americans. The director of national intelligence looked at the desk, scratched his bald head and answered: “No, sir”. He then added: “Not wittingly.”
After a week of revelations that have focused intense scrutiny on the surveillance activities of the intelligence services and have reignited a debate about privacy in the digital age, Mr Clapper is in the spotlight because it is hard not to conclude that he lied.
Mr Clapper admitted this week that he gave an answer he considered to be “the least untruthful”. However, members of Congress have called for his resignation, while Ron Wyden, the Oregon senator who asked the original question at the March hearing, said Mr Clapper did not give a “straight answer”.
The furore over US surveillance methods has focused on two important programmes run by the intelligence services. One collects data on telephone calls into a large database, and was first revealed by The Guardian newspaper. The other, called Prism and disclosed initially in The Washington Post, is used to sift information from emails and online chats – even though the extent of the data that are handed over to the authorities by technology companies is still the subject of some dispute.
But like all political stories, the personalities are a big part of the focus. In the case of the National Security Agency revelations, it pits Edward Snowden, the self-declared leaker, a 20-something computer specialist with a libertarian streak who is in hiding in Hong Kong, against Mr Clapper, a 72-year-old, retired lieutenant general who is now the political lightning rod for all the concerns about government violation of privacy.
Mr Clapper’s role as director of national intelligence was created after 9/11, when the intelligence services were criticised for not sharing enough information about terrorist threats. He sits above the 16 different intelligence agencies – a “convener-in-chief”, as former NSA and Central Intelligence Agency director Michael Hayden describes the role.
One of the reasons Mr Clapper’s March comments are now so corrosive is that the director of national intelligence has become the public face of the security services, the frontman whose job it is to convince the public that its interests are not being trampled in the quest to find terrorists.
Justin Amash, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, said on Wednesday that Mr Clapper had “lied under oath”.
Mr Clapper is also in the line of fire because his career has come to represent the sometimes promiscuous relationship between the intelligence services and the private sector companies that provide services to them.
He spent three decades in the air force in signals intelligence jobs, which included a stint in Thailand where he flew in combat missions. Since retiring from the military in 1995, he has moved between private sector jobs and senior positions in the government intelligence bureaucracy.
After a stint working for both Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that employed Mr Snowden, and SRA International, another contractor, Mr Clapper was asked to lead the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which purchases satellite imagery from the private sector and analyses the information for the government. On leaving in 2006, he took another job with a private sector company and joined several corporate boards, including a mapping company whose clients include the geospatial agency, before returning to government in 2007 overseeing Pentagon intelligence networks. He moved to his current post in 2010.
Speaking to a congressional hearing on Wednesday, the current director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, said the intelligence community leaned on the private sector after 9/11 because the government did not have sufficient technological expertise. Mr Clapper has praised the “ingenuity” of the contractors.
However, even before the NSA revelations, critics were complaining about the excessive use of contractors. “It is alarming that the profit motive is driving our cyber security policy,” says Sascha Meinrath, a technology expert at the New America Foundation.
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