America's Top Spy James Clapper: 'I Made a Mistake But I Did Not Lie'

In Q&A, James Clapper addresses controversy, makes small talk about martinis.

ByABC News
February 17, 2016, 2:22 PM

— -- America’s top intelligence official said that while he “made a mistake” when describing the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance programs to a Senate committee, he maintains that he “did not lie.”

James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, participated in a live Q&A through Tumblr earlier today in which he fielded several questions from Tumblr users. While some of them were silly (he said the Intelligence Community has “high confidence” the earth is round, sorry, B.o.B), one in particular was blunt: “Why did you lie about NSA surveillance in front of Congress?”

The questioner was presumably referring to a March 2013 public hearing in which Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?”

At the time, Clapper responded, “No, sir… Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect. But not wittingly.”

Later, however, it was revealed that the NSA did conduct bulk collection of metadata Americans’ communications, permissible under the controversial Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Clapper has apologized for the "clearly erroneous" testimony before, but said today several people had asked for an explanation during the Q&A so he responded that he simply didn’t think of that particular provision about the metadata during the hearing. Rather, he assumed Wyden meant the collection of the actual content of Americans’ communications. He and Wyden, Clapper said, were not on the same “page.” Even if they were, Clapper said, the metadata program was classified at the time, which means he would not have been able to answer the question properly in a public forum.

“So, yes, I made a mistake. But I did not lie. There’s a big difference,” Clapper said today.

Following the Q&A, Sen. Wyden took issue with Clapper’s response, tweeting that he had sent Clapper the question ahead of the 2013 hearing and that he “asked [Clapper] to correct the record afterwards [and] he refused.” An attorney for the office of the director of National Intelligence told The New York Times in 2014 that while Widen's staff did provide the question a day ahead of time, Clapper had not personally seen it.

In other parts of the Q&A, Clapper defended “secret” FISA courts and skirted a complex question about quantum computing. He did not answer a question submitted by ABC News regarding the current Apple encryption debate.

On the lighter side of things, Clapper revealed that as America’s top spy, he does actually drink martinis to unwind after work and that his favorite of all the James Bonds is Daniel Craig’s incarnation of the British superspy, though he always liked Sean Connery's “Goldfinger”.

At the end of the session Clapper said of the Tumblr Q&A that he would like to “do this again” and “will be encouraging others in the [Intelligence Community] to follow suit.”

This article has been updated.