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DNI chief Clapper apologizes for 'erroneous' answer on NSA surveillance

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FILE: Jan. 31, 2012: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper listens to a question while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.AP

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has apologized for telling Congress the National Security Agency doesn’t gather data on millions of Americans. 

The apology comes after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden gave top-secret information to newspapers that last month published stories about the federal government collecting the data from phone calls and such Internet communications as emails. 

Clapper apologized in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein that was posted Tuesday on the website of Clapper's office. 

Clapper said in the June 21 letter that his answer was "clearly erroneous." 

Americans have long known the United States implemented surveillance programs under the Patriot Act, in the wake of 9/11, with the goal of preventing more terror attacks, and that the programs targeted foreign and overseas suspects. However, many Americans seem stunned at the apparent extent of the programs and that the broad data collection included basic details on Americans' phone records. 

Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper at a March 12 congressional hearing whether the NSA “collects any type of data at all on millions of hundreds of millions of Americas?”

Wyden asked because Clapper suggested publicly months earlier that stories about the NSA keeping “dossiers” on millions of Americans were “completely false.”

Clapper told Wyden: “No sir, it does not.”

When asked for clarification, he said “not wittingly.”

After the latest stories appeared to reveal otherwise, Clapper said he gave the “least untruthful answer possible.” 

Clapper said in the letter to Feinstein that when answering he was confounded by the word dossier and challenged by trying to protect classified information. He also said that when answering Wyden, he was focused on whether the U.S. collected the content of phone and email conversations, and not so-called metadata, which essentially is phone numbers, email addresses, dates and times. He wrote that he "simply didn't think of" the pertinent section of the Patriot Act under which that information can be collected. 

“Thus my response was clearly erroneous -- for which I apologize,” Clapper said to Feinstein, in the letter.

Snowden's father Lon, meanwhile, chastised Clapper for his answers in an open letter Snowden sent Tuesday to his son.

"We leave it to the American people to decide whether you or Director Clapper is the superior patriot," Snowden wrote in the letter to his son.