WASHINGTON (AP) — A member of Congress asks the director of national intelligence if the National Security Agency collects data on millions of Americans. "No, sir," James Clapper responds. Pressed, he adds a caveat: "Not wittingly."
Then, NSA programs that do precisely that are disclosed.
It turns out that President Barack Obama's intelligence chief lied. Or as he put it last week: "I responded in what I thought was the most truthful or least most untruthful manner, by saying, 'No,' because the program was classified."
The White House stands by him. Press secretary Jay Carney says Obama "certainly believes that Director Clapper has been straight and direct in the answers that he's given." Congress, always adept at performing verbal gymnastics, seems generally unmiffed about Clapper's lack of candor. If there have been repercussions, the public doesn't know about them.
Welcome to the intelligence community, a shadowy network of secrets and lies reserved, apparently, not only for this country's enemies but also for its own citizens.
Sometimes it feels as if the government operates in a parallel universe where lying has no consequences and everyone but the people it represents is complicit in deception. Looking at episodes like this, it's unsurprising that people have lost faith in their elected leaders and the institution of government. This all reinforces what polls show people think: Washington plays by its own rules.
Since when is it acceptable for government — elected leaders or those they appoint — to be directly untruthful to Americans? Do people even care about the deception? Or is this kind of behavior expected these days? After all, most politicians parse words, tell half-truths and omit facts. Some lie outright. It's called spin.
And yet this feels different.
The government quite legitimately keeps loads of secrets from its people for security reasons, with gag orders in effect over top-secret information that adversaries could use against us. But does that authority also give the government permission to lie to its people in the name of their own safety without repercussions? Should Congress simply be accepting those falsehoods?
Consider the results of 2012 surveys.
One from the Public Affairs Council found that 57 percent of Americans felt that public officials in Washington had below-average honesty and ethical standards. Another from the Pew Research Center found 54 percent of Americans felt the federal government in Washington was mostly corrupt, while 31 percent rated it mostly honest.
Trust in government has dropped dramatically since the 1950s, when a majority of the country placed faith in it most of the time. But by April 2013, an Associated Press-GfK poll had found just 21 percent feeling that way.