Publicly releasing the context of his letter of apology and explanation to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Clapper said that he "simply didn’t think" of the NSA’s systematic surveillance of telephone metadata

Sometimes a spy agency can run so many snooping programmes that even its boss gets “confused” about which one is which.

James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence this week apologised for providing an “erroneous” reply to a Senator during a congressional hearing in March, that the secretive National Security Agency does not collect “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.”

Publicly releasing the context of his letter of apology and explanation to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mr. Clapper said that he “simply didn’t think” of the NSA’s systematic surveillance of telephone metadata, and instead assumed that the questions about Americans’ privacy from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden referred to the Agency’s collection of data on Internet communications.

The backpedalling on false testimony by the administration’s top intelligence advisor acquires significance in the wake of last month’s revelations by whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, regarding the NSA’s use of the PRISM and Boundless Informant automated mass surveillance programmes, and its covert spying on telephone records of customers of telecom giant Verizon.

Highlighting the difficulty that he said he faced in providing an unclassified response to Senator Wyden’s question on whether the NSA gathered data on U.S. citizens, Mr. Clapper said in his letter, “I simply didn’t think of Section 215 of the Patriot Act. Instead my answer addressed collection of the content of communications. I focused in particular on Section 702 of [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA]...”

After the FISA Amendments Act was passed in 2008 and renewed in December 2012 for five more years, the NSA is permitted to undertake warrantless eavesdropping “a wide array of calls, emails and online chats involving U.S. citizens,” whenever they communicate with foreign nationals under NSA surveillance.

Mr. Clapper added that it was in the context of data collection under the shadowy FISA Court’s authorisation that he had said that “inadvertent” collection of information on U.S. citizens sometimes occurs, even though such surveillance “is targeted at foreigners.”

He went on to add, “That said, I realised later that Senator Wyden was asking about Section 215 metadata collection, rather than content collection. Thus my response was clearly erroneous – for which I apologise.”

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