Transcript: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Oct. 2, 2013

Partial transcript of testimony of James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, on the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the National Security Agency (NSA). The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was held on Oct. 2, 2013:

Chairman [Patrick] Leahy, Ranking Member [Chuck] Grassley and distinguished members of the committee, if it’s all right with you, I would like to answer your question about the impacts of the government shutdown and furloughing our civilians.

First, the legal standard against which we make decisions about who is furloughed and who isn’t is – and this is quoting from the law – “that which is necessary to protect against imminent threat to life or property”.

And so our apply that standard is what resulted across-the-board in furloughing roughly 70%.

I think that will change if this drags on, and we will make adjustments depending on what we see as the potential imminent threats to life or property to quote the law.

I will tell you as to impacts, I’ve been in the intelligence business for about 50 years, I’ve never seen anything like this.

From my view, I think this on top of the sequestration cuts that we’re already taking that this seriously damages our ability to protect the safety and security of this nation and its citizens.

I would commend to you Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein’s superb statement yesterday on the floor outlining her concerns with which I completely agree.

This affects our ability – this is not just a Beltway issue – this affects our global capability to support the military, to support diplomacy and to support our policymakers.

And the danger here of course that this will accumulate over time. The damage will be insidious. So each day that goes by the jeopardy increases.

This is a dreamland for foreign intelligence services to recruit, particularly as our employees already many of whom subject to furloughs driven by sequestration are going to have, I believe, even greater financial challenges. So we’re spending our time setting up counseling services for employees to help them manage their finances.

So from my standpoint, this is extremely damaging, and it will increase as this shutdown drags on.

So, sir, if you’d like, we’re going to our statements on the subject of the hearing.

We do appreciate you having us today to talk about the way ahead occasioned by the dramatic revelations about intelligence collection programs since their unauthorized disclosure and about the steps that we’re taking to make these unauthorized disclosures transparent while still protecting our national security interests.

…We think this hearing is a key part of the discussion our nation needs about legislation that provides the intelligence community with authorities both to collect critical foreign intelligence and to protect privacy and civil liberties.

We – all of us – in the intelligence community are very much aware of the recent unauthorized disclosures have raised serious concerns both here in Congress and across the nation with our intelligence activities. We know that the public wants both to understand how its intelligence community uses its special tools and authorities and to judge whether we can be trusted to use them appropriately.

We believe we have been lawful and that the rigorous oversight we operated under has been effective. So we welcome this opportunity to make our case to the public.

As we engage in this discussion, I think it’s also important that our citizens know that the unauthorized disclosures of the details of these programs has been extremely damaging.

From my vantage as DNI, these disclosures are threatening to our ability to conduct intelligence and to keep our country safe. There’s no way to erase or make up for the damage that we know has already been done and we anticipate even more as we continue our assessments as more revelations occur.

Before these unauthorized disclosures, we were always conservative about discussing the specifics of our collection programs based on the truism that the more adversaries know about what we’re doing, the more they can avoid our surveillance.

But the disclosures for better or for worse have lowered the thresholds for discussing these matters in public. So to the degree that we can discuss them, we will.

But this public discussion should be based on an accurate understanding of the intelligence community, who we are, what we do, and how we’re overseen.

In the last few months, the manner in which our activities have been characterized have often been incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading or some combination thereof.

I believe that most Americans realize that the intelligence community exists to help collect the vital intelligence that helps protect our nation from foreign threats.

We focus on uncovering secret plans and intentions of our foreign adversaries. But what we do not do is spy unlawfully on Americans or for that matter, spy indiscriminately on the citizens of any country. We only spy for valid foreign intelligence purposes as authorized by law with multiple layers of oversight to ensure we do not abuse our authorities. Unfortunately, this reality has sometimes been obscured in the current debate.

And for some, this has led, as you alluded, to an erosion of trust in the intelligence community. And we do understand the concerns on the part of the public.

I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I remember as Congressional investigations of the 1970s later disclosed – and I was in the intelligence community then – that some intelligence programs were carried out for domestic political purposes without proper legal oversight or authorization.

But having lived through that as part of the intelligence community, I can now assure the American people the intelligence community today is not like that. We operate within a robust framework of strict rules and rigorous oversight involving all three branches of the government.

Another useful historical perspective, at least I think, is that during the Cold War, the free world and the Soviet bloc had mutually exclusive telecommunications systems, which made foreign collection a lot easier to distinguish. Now, world telecommunications are unified. Intertwined with hundreds of millions of innocent people conducting billions of innocent transactions are a much smaller number of nefarious adversaries that are trying to do harm on the very same network using the very same technologies. So our challenge is to distinguish, very precisely, between these two groups of communicants.

If we had an alarm bell that went off whenever one terrorist communicated with another terrorist, our jobs would certainly be a lot easier but that capability just doesn’t exist in the world of technology today.

Over the past three months, I’ve declassified and publicly released a series of documents related to both Section 215 of the Patriot Act and Section 702 of the foreign intelligence surveillance act or FISA.

We did that to facilitate informed public debate about the important intelligence collection programs that operate under these authorities. We felt that in light of the unauthorized disclosures, the public interest in these documents far outweighed the potential additional damage to national security.

These documents let our citizens see the seriousness, thoroughness and rigor with which the FISA court exercises its responsibilities.

They also reflect the intelligence community’s, particularly NSA’s, commitment to uncovering, reporting, and correcting any compliance matters that occur. However, even in these documents, we’ve had to redact certain information to protect sensitive sources and methods such as particular targets of surveillance.

But we will continue to declassify more. That’s what the American people want. It’s what the President has asked us to do. And I personally believe it’s the only way we can reassure our citizens that their intelligence community is using its tools and authorities appropriately and legitimately.

The rules and oversight that govern us ensure we do what the American people want us to do, which is to protect our nation’s security and our people’s liberties. So I’ll repeat: We do not spy on anyone except for valid foreign intelligence purposes and we only work within the law.

On occasions, we’ve made mistakes – some quite significants – but these are usually caused by human errors or technical problems. And whenever we’ve found such mistakes, we reported, addressed, and corrected them.

The National Security Agency specifically, as part of the intelligence community broadly, is an honorable institution. The men and women who do this sensitive work are honorable people dedicated to conducting their mission lawfully and are appalled by any wrongdoing. They too are citizens of this nation who care just as much about privacy and constitutional rights as the rest of us. They should be commended for their crucial important work in protecting the people of this country, which has been made all the more difficult by this torrent of unauthorized damaging disclosures.

That all said, we in the intelligence community stand ready to work in partnership with you to adjust foreign surveillance authorities to further protect our privacy and civil liberties.

And I think there are some principles we agree on. One, we must always protect our sources, methods, targets, partners and liaison relationships. Secondly, we must do a better job of helping the American people understand what we do, why we do it, and most importantly the rigorous oversight that helps ensure that we do it correctly. And three, we must take every opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of every American; but we also have to remain mindful of the potentially negative long-term impact of over-correcting the authorizations granted to the intelligence community.

As Americans, we face an unending array of threats to our way of life – more diverse array of threats than I’ve seen in my 50 years in intelligence, and I believe we need to sustain our ability to detect these threats.

We welcome a balanced discussion about national security and civil liberties. It’s not an either or situation. We need to continue to protect both.


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