Senators grill spy chiefs, accuse them of lies

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testifies during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee October 29, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. MCT

Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee lambasted the nation’s top intelligence chiefs on Wednesday, complaining of lies about gathering the phone records of Americans and failing to cooperate with Congress in an investigation of the CIA’s controversial interrogation programs.

Committee members grilled Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan at the first intelligence committee hearing since President Barack Obama proposed reforms to the spy program.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told them an ongoing “culture of misinformation” has undermined the public’s trust in America’s intelligence leadership.

“That trust has been seriously undermined by senior officials’ reckless reliance on secret interpretations of the law and battered by years of misleading and deceptive statements senior officials made to the American people,” Wyden said.

He said the deception didn’t help the fight against terror, but instead hid bad policy choices and violations of civil liberties. Wyden singled out Clapper’s testimony to Congress last March that the National Security Agency does not collect data on millions of Americans, an assertion proved false by leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Clapper has since apologized, suggesting he misspoke. But five members of Congress, led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called this week for the White House to fire Clapper for misleading Congress.

Clapper didn’t address the charges of deception Wednesday. But he told the Senate panel that Snowden’s leaks have damaged national security and exposed intelligence collection methods to terrorists.

“Snowden claims he’s won and that his mission is accomplished,” Clapper said. “If that is so, I call on him and his accomplices to facilitate the return of the remaining stolen documents that have not yet been exposed, in order to prevent even more damage to U.S. security.”

Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine agreed that Snowden’s disclosures put America at greater threat of attack, and they suggested the leaks could endanger members of the military.

“What really bothers me sometimes is these romanticized notions about who Edward Snowden is and what he’s done to this country,” Rubio said.

Democratic Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado criticized Brennan, the CIA chief. They said Brennan is failing to cooperate with the Intelligence Committee’s probe of the CIA’s post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. It included secret prisons and techniques such as waterboarding often equated with torture.

“Recent efforts undertaken by the CIA, including but not limited to inaccurate public statements about the committee study, are meant to intimidate, deflect and thwart legitimate oversight,” said Heinrich.

Heinrich said the Senate Intelligence Committee should declassify and release the 6,300-page report it prepared on the program. The highly critical report alleges the CIA misled lawmakers about the value of the information produced by the interrogation technique.

The CIA has disputed the findings. But Brennan said Wednesday that he “vehemently disagrees” with the charge the CIA has not cooperated with the Senate probe.

Udall pressed Brennan on an internal report the CIA did of the program under former agency chief Leon Panetta. The findings weren’t given to the Senate committee as it investigated.

Brennan wouldn’t say if the CIA’s internal report conflicts with what the agency told the Senate Intelligence Committee. He suggested that discussion involved classified information and would need to happen behind closed doors.

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