James Clapper Hails Checks and Balances While Treating Oversight “Too Cute by Half”

I’ve been citing bits of this interview between James Clapper and Andrea Mitchell here and there, but the whole thing needs to be read to be believed.

But the quick version is this. Mitchell asks Clapper whether “trust us” is enough, given that some future President or Director of National Intelligence might decide to abuse all the programs in question. Clapper responds by celebrating our constitutional system’s checks and balances.


The president and you and the others in this top-secret world, are saying, “Trust us. We have your best interests, we’re not invading your privacy, we’re going after bad guys. We’re not going after your personal lives.” What happens when you’re gone, when this president or others in our government are gone? There could be another White House that breaks the law.

There could be another D.N.I. who does really bad things– we listened during the Watergate years to those tapes. With the President of the United States saying, “Fire bomb the Brookings Institution.” You know, what do you say to the American people about the next regime who has all of these secrets? Do they– do they live forever somewhere in a computer?


No, they don’t live forever. That’s a valid concern, I think. You know, people come and go, presidents come and go, administrations come and go, D.N.I.’s will come and go. But what is, I think– important about our system is our system of laws, our checks and balances.

You know, the– I think the founding fathers would actually be pretty impressed with how– what they wrote and the organizing principles for this country are still valid and are still used even in you– to– to regulate a technology then, they never foresaw. So that’s timeless. That– those are part of our institutions. Are there people that will abuse those institutions? Yes. But we have a system that sooner or later, mostly sooner these days, those misdeeds are found out. [my emphasis]

But when, earlier in the interview, Mitchell asks him about his lie to Ron Wyden, here’s how he answered.


Senator Wyden made quite a lot out of your exchange with him last March during the hearings. Can you explain what you meant when you said that there was not data collection on millions of Americans?


First– as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked– “When are you going to start– stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not– answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

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