The Art of Deception: A Necessary Skill for Intelligence Officials

As more and more becomes known about blanket spying by the National Security Agency, one thing is becoming increasingly apparent. Government officials are deliberately and repeatedly misleading Congress and the US public in a concerted effort to conceal as much as possible about what the NSA is actually doing.

This should not be surprising. Most officials and operators in the intelligence world consider deception to be a central part of the job. Along with secrecy, the ability to create false perceptions is regarded as a valuable and necessary skill. Those who are most proficient at it often rise to positions of authority.

Following the creation of the CIA in 1947, the concept of "plausible deniability" was invented in order to conduct covert actions secretly while being able to deny them publicly. This principle has now been thoroughly ingrained into the US intelligence culture. It is a convenient way of getting away with illegal and unpopular activity without having to divulge it to the public, or get approval from oversight authorities. It also insulates Congress members from charges of complicity, allowing them to deny any knowledge about the covert activities.

Officials often tell us that strict secrecy is necessary in order to keep our enemies from knowing what the US is doing to fight terrorism. But the fact is much of what the government keeps secret is for the purpose of concealing it from the American public and from Congress.

This explains why Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper would outright lie in public testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee when pressed about NSA operations. Senator Ron Wyden asked Clapper whether the NSA collects "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans." "No sir," Clapper replied, "Not wittingly."

Unfortunately for Mr. Clapper, his untruth was revealed to the world three months later when Edward Snowden leaked a secret court order, published in The Guardian, compelling Verizon to turn over data on all phone calls, both foreign and domestic, on an "ongoing, daily basis."

When Clapper told his whopper to the committee, he did exactly what he is supposed to do. His job is to publicly deny, as much as possible, what intelligence agencies are doing covertly. He was being a good DNI by doing exactly that. Is it any surprise that he is not being prosecuted for perjury, or that he even still has his job? On the contrary, he is exactly the kind of person they want in the job.

As the intelligence establishment struggles to control the damage from the ongoing Snowden revelations, its strategy has become consistent and predictable. As former NSA official William Binney describes it, "They will only tell you the truth when they’ve been caught or exposed, and then they only tell you what’s been exposed. They never go any further. Then, they wait for the next exposure to come out."

Meanwhile the denials, misleading statements and outright lies continue. Often they use clever wording to leave an erroneous impression, with subtle phrases thrown in so that they can later, if necessary, claim they were misunderstood.

For example, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Deputy Attorney General James Cole was asked if the NSA has any ability to listen to the contents of phone calls that appear in the phone records "metadata" that they collect on every American. The phone records collection program had already been exposed, so he could not longer deny it, but he was now faced with having to deny that they could access the actual contents of the calls. His response was emphatic, but cleverly worded. "No, we don’t even capture any of these conversations" he said. "There is no ability, even possibility to listen to conversations through what we get in this program." [emphasis added.]

The fact that the NSA has been secretly recording and storing the contents of phone calls is an elephant in the room that will very likely be proven as more leaked evidence is revealed. Cole’s answer cleverly conceals NSA’s mass recording of phone calls by saying that it is not happening "in this program," meaning the phone metadata collection. We can expect further such denials until the truth is publicly exposed. Then Mr. Cole will be able to say he wasn’t lying because his statement was only referring to the program of phone metadata collection.

Another official who has taken a lead role in defending NSA activities is NSA Director General Keith Alexander. Representative Mike Rogers, the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee who has been steadfastly defending NSA spying, asked Alexander what appeared to be a pre-rehearsed question at a hearing before his committee: "Does the technology exist at the NSA to flip a switch by some analyst to listen to Americans’ phone calls, or read their emails?" Alexander’s response was a direct "No." The typical observer would assume that the expression "flip a switch" is meant figuratively, since in a computerized environment most everything is done with software, not with mechanical switches.

Not long after Alexander’s testimony, The Guardian published leaked documents revealing that NSA does in fact have that ability through their system called XKeyscore, which allows analysts to instantly access the content of emails, phone calls and Internet activity simply by entering an email address or IP address. If confronted about his deceptive answer, Alexander can now say that even though NSA does have that ability, there is no actual "switch" involved.

At the same hearing, Rogers again asked Alexander if the NSA has the ability to listen to phone calls or read emails of Americans. Alexander responded, "No, we do not have that authority." Look carefully at Alexander’s response. The question was whether NSA has the ability. Alexander’s answer was that they do not have the authority. Yet, he successfully left the impression that he answered "No" to the question.

After Edward Snowden claimed that he could, sitting at his desk in his job as an NSA contractor, wiretap anyone if he had a personal email, he was roundly accused of exaggerating. “He’s lying," Rep. Rogers insisted. "It’s impossible for him to do what he was saying he could do.” The leaked XKeyscore documents now prove that Rogers was wrong, and Snowden was right. Was Rogers lying, or did he actually believe what he was saying? We have yet to hear an explanation from him.

During a presentation at the American Enterprise Institute last July, a reporter asked General Alexander if the NSA’s massive new data center in Bluffdale, Utah will hold any data of American citizens. The correct answer is "Yes," but we’re not supposed to know that. Alexander had no trouble denying it with a straight face. "While I can’t go into all the details of the Utah data center, we don’t hold data on US Citizens," he said definitively.

According to NSA whistleblowers William Binney, Kirk Wiebe and others, Alexander’s denial is laughable. The Bluffdale facility is widely understood to be for the purpose of storing the contents of emails, phone calls, and Internet activity of everyone, including Americans.

How will Alexander wriggle out of his lies when they are publicly exposed? Will he face perjury charges, or lose his job? Judging from how James Clapper is surviving, Alexander has nothing to worry about.

David Kasper is Executive Director of the Empowerment Project, a non-profit media center and documentary production group in Chapel Hill, NC. As a filmmaker, he is best known for his 1992 Oscar-winning documentary The Panama Deception. He is currently working on a film about the rise of American security state called Seizing Power. He can be reached at