James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, admitted that the U.S. intelligence community should have been more transparent about how the National Security Agency used information collected from a controversial bulk telephone metadata program that was disclosed last year.
In an interview published by The Daily Beast on Monday, Clapper said that if the agency had been more transparent about their initiative after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, American citizens might have been more accepting of the program.
Instead, the NSA and other intelligence agencies have faced criticism from elected officials and privacy groups since details of the bulk collection program were made public by the media last year.
“What did us in here, what worked against us was this shocking revelation,” Clapper said. “I don’t think it would be of any greater concern to most Americans than fingerprints. Well people kind of accept that because they know about it.”
“[We should have been] transparent about it and say, ‘here’s one more thing we have to do as citizens for the common good, just like we have to go to airports two hours early and take our shoes off, all the other things we do for the common good, this is one more thing,’” Clapper admitted.
The bulk collection program, which was first reported by the New York Times in 2005 and later by USA Today, was thrust back into the spotlight last June after The Guardian newspaper published a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court document ordering Verizon to hand over subscriber records of every American customer to the NSA. The classified document was one of thousands distributed to journalists by former government contractor Edward Snowden, who is currently living in Russia under temporary political asylum.
Last June, NSA’s director, Gen. Keith Alexander, said Snowden’s actions “caused irreversible and significant damage” to the United States. But the unauthorized disclosure also provoked a public debate between lawmakers and the intelligence community over what type of surveillance is appropriate and how much spying is too much.
The Snowden leaks prompted technology companies once ordered not to talk about its forced, secret cooperation with the government to publish transparency reports for the first time. Many of these companies called on the government to allow them to disclose even more information regarding requests for customer information.
The leaks fueled lawsuits that forced the intelligence community to itself publish previously classified documents related to the bulk collection program and others. Eventually, the leaks forced President Obama to order changes as to how bulk telephone records are collected, stored and searched (though the program has not been terminated entirely).
But until now, the nation’s top intelligence official has reserved his opinion on the secret surveillance operations he was responsible for. While Clapper says the agency should have been more transparent about their intent to collect the phone records of every American, the spy boss still defends the program and says he doesn’t think it should end.
“I buy fire insurance ever since I retired, the wife and I bought a house out here and we buy fire insurance every year,” Clapper told The Daily Beast. “Never had a fire. But I am not gonna quit buying my fire insurance, same kind of thing.”