James Clapper’s Credibility Problem
Former intel chief who dismissed Trump wiretap claim once faced impeachment for perjury
If former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says President Donald Trump’s wiretapping claims are hogwash, it must be so, right?
Except Clapper, who delivered his comments Sunday on “Meet the Press,” has a record that suggests major credibility problems. He faced impeachment calls in 2013 after he testified before Congress that the National Security Agency was not collecting data on millions of Americans.
“He’s lied under to Congress under oath. He helped protect Hillary Clinton.”
“No, sir,” he said during that hearing. “Not wittingly.”
Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew that testimony out of the water a few months later when he released classified documents. Those documents revealed that the NSA was collecting bulk domestic call records, along with various internet communications.
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, noted Clapper also refused to conduct a national security assessment after revelations that former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had used a private server to store work-related emails — including some that had classified information.
“He’s lied under oath to Congress,” he said. “He helped protect Hillary Clinton.”
Judicial Watch announced Monday that it has sued the federal government seeking records related to surveillance that President Obama’s administration reportedly conducted on Michael Flynn, a retired general who would go on to be Trump’s national security adviser. He said Judicial Watch wants information about the surveillance and potentially criminal leaks about the investigation.
“President Trump is onto something,” he said. “There’s little doubt he was targeted … He’s on the right path there.”
Much of the media analysis of Trump’s weekend tweets regarding the wiretapping allegations have focused on the accusation that Obama ordered surveillance. If such surveillance took place, they say, it would have been done under the auspices of the Justice Department — not Obama, personally.
Fitton suggested that is a distinction without a difference. Obama was the head of the executive branch, and he spoke at length during the campaign about Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. election, the topic of the Flynn investigation and questions swirling around Trump.
“This is the national security version of the Obama IRS scandal,” he said, referring to extra scrutiny to which the agency subjected conservative groups seeking nonprofit status. “We forget how much of a personal interest he took in this issue [of Russian influence] … He’s responsible for the investigation.”
Fred Fleitz, senior vice president for policy and programs at the Center for Security Policy, told LifeZette that Trump’s claims do not seem outrageous. He said comments by Clapper and FBI Director James Comey are legalistic, focusing on surveillance at Trump Tower. Such comments do not foreclose the possibility that, as reported by media organizations using confidential sources, the Justice Department won approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to conduct surveillance.
“The denials are very narrow,” said Fleitz, who served in national security positions for 25 years. “The larger question is, was there surveillance of Trump or his associates, using the power of the intelligence community? I think the answer to that is clearly yes.”
Fleitz noted The New York Times reported last month that revelations that Flynn discussed sanctions against Russia in conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak came from “wiretapped conversations.” The Times separately reported that intercepted phone calls show repeated contacts between campaign aides and senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
“It’s funny how they’re criticizing him for using imprecise and possibly outdated terms when they use that, themselves,” Fleitz said.
Democrats were much more willing on Monday to give Clapper the benefit of the doubt.
“This is not some sort of boxing match between James Clapper and the president,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told CNN. He later added, “I have no reason to disbelieve Mr. Clapper. Let’s be clear about that.”
Not long ago, though, Wyden expressed a great deal of concern about Clapper’s credibility.
“During Director Clapper’s tenure, senior intelligence officials engaged in a deception spree regarding mass surveillance,” he said in a statement after Clapper announced his resignation Nov. 17. “Top officials, officials who reported to Director Clapper, repeatedly misled the American people and even lied to them.”
Outgoing Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) told U.S. News & World Report that Clapper’s lie was “particularly egregious” because it affected all Americans.
“Clapper’s subsequent attempts at rationalization are no different from what Richard Nixon said, ‘When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,'” he said. “If we want to call ourselves a nation of laws, then it is important that Clapper be prosecuted, and convicted.”
Fitton, of Judicial Watch, said statements by Clapper and others should be viewed skeptically.
“The idea that the public statements of Obama administration officials should be dispositive is just ridiculous,” he said.
Trump, as president, presumably could release documentation showing the activities of U.S. intelligence officials. But Fleitz, of the Center for Security Policy, said that is unnecessary.
“I don’t think he has to prove anything,” he said. “He’s raised a very general issue, which I think is quite serious.”