WASHINGTON — A key U.S. senator on Tuesday slammed senior intelligence and Pentagon officials, suggesting they knowingly lied to Congress about domestic spying efforts by a military agency.
Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., accused National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander and James Clapper, director of national intelligence, of failing to give lawmakers “straight answers” about a sweeping NSA effort to track telephone and email traffic originating in the United States.
“One of the most important responsibilities a senator has is oversight of the intelligence community,” Wyden said in a statement. “This job cannot be done responsibly if senators aren’t getting straight answers to direct questions.”
Wyden referred to comments made to lawmakers earlier by Alexander and Clapper under veiled questioning about the program.
“When NSA Director Alexander failed to clarify previous public statements about domestic surveillance, it was necessary to put the question to the Director of National Intelligence,” Wyden said.
“Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Wyden asked Clapper during a March 12 hearing.
“No, sir,” Clapper replied.
“There are cases where they could inadvertently ... but not wittingly,” Clapper replied.
“In the case of NSA and CIA, there are structures against tracking American citizens in the United States for foreign intelligence purposes,” Clapper said.
Wyden, who like other lawmakers was aware of the “PRISM” program, was unsatisfied by the answer.
“So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper’s office a day in advance,” the senator said. “After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer.”
Clapper opted to do so in several media interviews, but he never acknowledged the classified program existed. Nor did he acknowledge the efforts in any way that would have avoided making public classified information.
“Now public hearings are needed to address the recent disclosures and the American people have the right to expect straight answers from the intelligence leadership to the questions asked by their representatives,” Wyden said.
A spokesman for Clapper had yet to return a reporter’s call seeking a reaction to Wyden’s claims.
Later Tuesday, following a closed-door briefing on PRISM to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Alexander did not respond when Defense News asked whether he purposely misled lawmakers earlier this year.
During a Tuesday hearing, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., questioned how Edward Snowden was able to do highly classified work for the CIA and Booz Allen despite failing to “make it through community college.”
Mikulski predicted Congress would be holding “plenty of hearings” in coming weeks on the PRISM disclosure controversy.
Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., raised concerns Tuesday that the Pentagon might employ too many civilian contractors like Snowden.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did not directly address the PRISM controversy, but did note that as part of budget-crunching efforts, “we are reviewing all our contracts.”
In addition to security concerns, Durbin raised worries that civilian contractors cost “two to three times” more than government employees doing the same kinds of jobs.
Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale replied that hiring contractors like Snowden, who reportedly made $112,000 annually prior to his Monday firing, sometimes makes more sense. For instance, Hale said, civilians are a better fiscal option when doing a job that eventually will disappear at the end of a contract. Government employees are a better fit for permanent jobs, Hale said.