June 13, 2013— -- When someone who knows top-secret information is asked about it in a public congressional hearing, what should he or she do?
"The traditional answer is so easy: 'Frankly, senator, I'm unable to answer that in an open hearing,'" said Jim Lewis, a former Foreign Service officer at the State and Commerce Departments.
But James Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, one of the highest ranking intelligence officials in the country, didn't do that. He answered the question.
Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in March whether the government collected data on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans, and Clapper said, "no," or at least "not wittingly."
The rub is that government officials do, indeed, collect data on millions of Americans, even if they don't necessarily read it all.
Read more about NSA leaker Edward Snowden HERE.
So why would a senior intelligence official, who has in the past undoubtedly answered dozens of questions about classified programs with a quick pass, flub it this time?
The answer could be as simple as this: Wyden's question was confusing.
Wyden began by probing Clapper about a statement that National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander made at a conference. "The story that we have millions or hundreds of dossiers on people is completely false," Alexander had said.
Alexander's statement, even in light of the recently released information about the NSA's secret programs, is true. The government doesn't collect "dossiers," or "files," on millions of Americans.
Wyden said, "The reason I'm asking the question is, having served on the committee now for a dozen years, I don't really know what a dossier is in this context."
So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" the Oregon Democrat continued, rephrasing Alexander's word "dossier" as "data collection."
So what does he do now? Admit that he simply misunderstood the question?
"He's kind of stuck because he's got to say we collect on a very broad range of individuals but we actually only process and read a tiny portion of them," Lewis, former Foreign Service officer, said. "He might want to issue a clarifying statement. A lot of people are either intentionally or otherwise don't understand the difference between collect and read."
Intelligence director Clapper explained it this way Saturday in an interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell:
"To me, collection of a U.S. person's data would mean taking the books off the shelf, opening it up and reading it," Clapper told Mitchell.
Clapper, however, could simply have refused to answer.
Lewis said Clapper possibly believed that refusing to answer the question would imply that the answer was "yes."
"The fear is by even refusing to answer the question, you're confirming it," Lewis said. "It put Clapper in a tough spot."
Clapper has not responded to an ABC News request for comment.
Strictly speaking, Wyden, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would have had access to a certain amount of classified information on the National Security Agency's surveillance program. And he might have skirted the line of revealing classified information by asking such a pointed question of Clapper about a top-secret program.
"Congressmen don't always have the best judgment and they ask about classified programs in open hearings," added Lewis, who is also director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. "They never like the answer where you say, 'Congressman, I'm afraid I can't answer that question to even confirm it or deny it.'"
Clapper told Mitchell it's a "when are you going to stop beating your wife" kind of question.
"So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,'" he told Mitchell.
That may explain why Wyden has used the incident to call for additional hearings and "straight answers" from intelligence officials about the program.
"So that he would be prepared to answer, I sent the question to Director Clapper's office a day in advance," Wyden said in a statement Tuesday. "After the hearing was over my staff and I gave his office a chance to amend his answer. "
But when asked directly by reporters Tuesday whether he believes Clapper lied, he declined to accuse the national intelligence director of intentionally misleading Congress.
That hasn't, however, stopped others from using the "L" word.
Rep. Jason Amash, R-Mich., today said frankly that Clapper lied to Congress and should resign.
"It now appears clear that the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, lied under oath to Congress and the American people," Amash wrote in a Facebook post. "Members of Congress can't make informed decisions on intelligence issues when the head of the intelligence community willfully makes false statements."
"Perjury is a serious crime. Mr. Clapper should resign immediately."