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Joe Conason: To Repair the Damage Done in NSA Blowup, Start with Clapper

With the conviction of Bradley Manning and asylum granted to Edward Snowden in Russia, it may be time to turn attention away from the controversy over their actions and toward the government — specifically, the intelligence community. Whatever ultimate judgment is leveled on Manning's or Snowden's actions, they have raised real questions about the ways that the United States gathers, uses and classifies information.

The first order of business is to restore a semblance of democratic order within the government itself. Somehow amid the hunt for Snowden and the trial of Manning, the misconduct of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has seemingly been excused. But if the actions of Manning and Snowden required prosecution, then what Clapper did deserves investigation and censure at the very least.

Testifying on surveillance by the National Security Agency last March, Clapper appeared at a Senate committee hearing where Sen. Ron Wyden asked: "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?"

"No, sir," Clapper replied. Then he added: "Not wittingly."

Not only was that response false, but the nation's highest-ranking intelligence official gave that false answer in public, with ample warning from Wyden that he would be asked about that sensitive issue. Rather than speaking truthfully about the collection of telecom "metadata" — or even deflecting the question — Clapper lied. By doing so he aroused even greater anger and suspicion about the government's motives when the lie was exposed, although the outlines of the NSA domestic surveillance program have been known for several years.

As Sen. Wyden recently told The National Memo, Clapper was repeating the same misleading reassurances about widespread surveillance offered in other public remarks, which disturbed Wyden — who knew better already. And of course Clapper knew that Wyden and other senators were aware of the NSA's collection programs, which only made his behavior more brazen. By attempting to implicate the Senate in an ongoing attempt to mislead the American people, he mocked the concept of legislative oversight — the only real check against intelligence abuses.

Clapper's false testimony echoed some of the worst trespasses against democratic governance of the previous administration. While it is wrong to say that the Obama administration is just as arrogant and authoritarian as was the Bush (and Cheney) regime, that moment in the Capitol encouraged those unflattering comparisons. It violated President Barack Obama's promises of integrity and transparency, and his oath to uphold the Constitution.

A respected nonpartisan watchdog outfit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, is urging the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation of Clapper. That isn't a bad idea, although the Senate itself also ought to perform its own probe when a ranking official it has confirmed does what Clapper did. As for the president, he might regain some of the public confidence forfeited on this issue — as well as some of the international prestige lost in the NSA blowup — if he simply asked Clapper to resign.

None of this is meant to exonerate the damaging acts and poor judgment of the two leakers targeted by the government for espionage. Manning in particular has harmed innocent people around the world with his indiscriminate exposure of thousands of diplomatic cables. His subsequent mistreatment by the Army was a disgrace, but he — and his dubious sponsors at WikiLeaks — did no favors to the cause they supposedly wanted to advance.

Nor is it to say that American officials don't need to keep secrets and conduct covert operations, which may well include lawful, circumscribed surveillance of American citizens. That will only be tolerated, however, within the system of congressional oversight established four decades ago, after the historic Church Committee hearings revealed rampant CIA abuses and crimes.

Now Manning has been punished and Snowden exiled. But the damage done at the very core of democracy has not begun to be repaired.

Joe Conason is editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JConason, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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