Transcript: DNI James Clapper’s testimony on NSA’s surveillance programs before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29, 2013

Partial transcript of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s testimony on NSA’s surveillance programs before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29, 2013:

…Thanks so much for having us appear today to talk about the way ahead, occasioned by the continuing dramatic revelations about intelligence collection programs since their unauthorized disclosure.

[Interrupted by Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), who asked Capitol Police to escort an audience member holding a sign out of the room. The man removed said, “You said nothing about a sign. I was listening to your opening statement.”]

And about the steps we’re taking to make these programs more transparent while still protecting our national security interests…

This hearing is a key part of the discussion our nation needs about legislation that provides the intelligence 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 that the recent unauthorized disclosures have raised serious concerns that you alluded to both here in Congress and across the nation about our intelligence activities.

We know the public wants 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 that we’ve 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, the disclosures are threatening 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 assessment and as more revelations are made.

Before these unauthorized disclosures, we were always very conservative about discussing specifics about our collection programs based on the truisms that the more the 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 accurate understanding of the intelligence community – who we are, what we do, and how we’re overseen.

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

I believe that most Americans realize the intelligence community exists to collect the vital intelligence that helps protect our nation from foreign threats. We focus on uncovering the secret plans and intentions of our foreign adversaries as we’ve been charged to do.

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 don’t abuse our authorities.

Unfortunately, this reality has sometimes been obscured in the current debate, and for some this has led 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 in 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 authorization or oversight. But having lived through that as part of the intelligence community, I can now assure the American people that the intelligence community today is not like that. We operate with a robust framework of strict rules and rigorous oversight involving all three branches of government.

Another useful historical perspective, I think, is that during the Cold War the free world and the Soviet block 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 who are trying to do harm on the very same network using the very same technologies. So our challenge is to distinguish very precisely these two groups of communicants.

If we had an alarm bell that went off whenever one terrorist communicated with another terrorist, our job would be infinitely easier. But that capability just doesn’t exist in the world of technology at least today.

Over the past 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 Surveillance Intelligence Act or FISA.

We’re doing 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 outweigh the potential in additional damage to national security.

These documents let our citizens see the seriousness, the thoroughness, and the rigor with which the FISA court exercises its responsibilities. They also reflect the intelligence community’s, particularly the 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 documents. 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.

The rules and oversight that govern us ensure we do what the American people want us to do, which is 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.

To be sure, on occasions, we’ve made mistakes – some quite significant. But these are usually caused by human error or technical problems. And whenever we’ve found mistakes, we’ve 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, care just as much about privacy and constitutional rights as the rest of us. They should be commended for their crucial and important work in protecting the people and the country, which has been made all the more difficult by this torrent of unauthorized damaging disclosures.

With that all said, we in the IC 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 already agree on.

First, we must always protect our sources, methods, targets, partners, and liaison relationships.

We must do a better job in helping the American people understand what we do, why we do it, and most importantly the rigorous oversight that helps ensure we do it correctly.

And third, 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 potential 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 than I’ve seen in my 50 years in intelligence. And we need to sustain our ability to detect these threats.

We certainly 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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16 Comments on “Transcript: DNI James Clapper’s testimony on NSA’s surveillance programs before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 29, 2013

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