But at the hearing Wednesday (1 hr 30 mins in), Coats decided to give up any pretense that the intelligence services would provide a figure. He told the Senate committee that no such information would be forthcoming. That caused Senator Wyden to throw his statement about working on a metric back at him.
Coats responded: "What I pledged to you in my confirmation hearing is I would make every effort to try to find out why we were not able to come to a specific number of collection of US persons ... There were extensive efforts on the part of the NSA to get you an appropriate answer – they were not able to do that..."
Wyden angrily interjected: "Respectfully, that's not what you said. You said: 'We are working to produce a relevant metric...'"
"But we were not able to do it. Working to do it is different from doing it," retorted Coats.
Wyden spat back: "You told the American people that even a statistical sample would be 'jeopardizing America's national security' – that is inaccurate and detrimental to the cause of ensuring we have both security and liberty."
Of course, to Coats' eyes as well as to his fellow chiefs – Michael Rogers of the NSA, Rod Rosenstein of the DoJ and Andrew McCabe of the FBI – revealing that statistic would indeed be detrimental to national security.
Because if they did release the figure, it would undermine the 702 spying program, which does – when not being abused – provide valuable intelligence on foreign threats.
The fact that the figure would undermine the program only because it shows the intelligence heads are distorting their legal authority is just one of the many difficult-to-stomach contortions that almost define the US government's current and past spying programs.
Another extraordinary part of the intelligence heads' joint statement [PDF] was its recognition that it does in fact search its 702 database for "US person query terms ... such as a name or telephone number" – but only because of the loss of other spying programs that were deemed illegal.
"That restriction was recently removed in light of the more restricted nature of NSA's reconfigured upstream Internet collection and NSA's deletion of the vast majority of previously acquired upstream Internet communications," they stated.
Meanwhile, despite 30 big internet companies including Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft sending a letter asking for very specific reforms to the law before it is re-enacted, Congressional Republicans used the hearing to give the intelligence heads a free pass to talk about how important the program was, and to reiterate its carefully worded position that Section 702 only gathers information on foreign targets and other data brought in is "incidental."
One Congressman even proposed that Section 702 be reauthorized without a sunset clause – meaning that it would not need to go through another round of Congressional hearings several years in the future.
The intelligence chiefs liked that idea. ®