Same Crime, Different Punishments

Written by Common Cause Interns on July 15, 2013

Thumbnail for the Congressional ethics campaign

By Ben Resnik

Every now and then, something happens that sums up the need for government accountability better than any press release or speech. In the last several weeks, there has been no more clear or shameful example than that of Director of Intelligence James Clapper.

You'll recall that at a hearing last spring, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Clapper whether the NSA was collecting data on millions of Americans. Clapper denied it, only to be exposed as a liar when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA's eavesdropping programs to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Clapper then apologized, at first saying that he had made the "least untruthful statement" but later claiming he was confused by the question.

And that was it. Clapper's "apology" prompted plenty of official bluster but not much else. Now, with Snowden marooned in a Moscow airport and Clapper's dissembling fading from the headlines, everything is going back to normal in Washington. Once again, the White House has "full confidence in Director Clapper and his leadership of the intelligence community." Even Sen. Wyden's valiant attempts to demand accountability, including a bipartisan letter seeking answers on the extent of Clapper's deceit, essentially have been shrugged off by the Director of Intelligence -- so far without repercussion.

So what gives? According to House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff (D-CA), nobody in office wants to let Snowden win the round. "This administration views Snowden as the problem, not Gen. Clapper," said Schiff. "[Clapper] is generally a very straight shooter. I think people are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn't trying to mislead the Senate."

It's passing strange that Snowden and Clapper each used his position of privilege in America's security complex to deceive his bosses -- the NSA for Snowden and Congress for Clapper -- but that while Clapper and his fancy title are getting off with only a scolding, Snowden is stuck in Moscow with the full might of the U.S. government in hot pursuit.

There's no question that Snowden's actions deserve the attention of the law, but surely Clapper's do as well. That is the essence of accountability in government: equality under the law, both in its protection and its inquiry. Anything less fosters the above-the-law attitude at the core of this problem. For legal equality and for oversight to have meaning, Clapper must be made to answer.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Ethics

Tags: Congressional Ethics

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