Clapper On, or Clapper Off?

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When Barack Obama nominated retired Air Force General James Clapper to be his Director of National Intelligence last June, he hailed him as a man who would speak the truth regardless of the consequences. Clapper, the president said, “possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.”

Yesterday, Clapper did just that, telling a Senate committee that the regime of Muammar Ghaddafi “will prevail” in Libya. It was not what the White House wanted to hear. And instead of receiving thanks, Clapper earned a de facto rebuke from national security advisor Tom Donilon, who argued that Clapper’s analysis was based on a “static analysis” of military strength that omitted such other factors as diplomatic pressure. But mostly it sounded like a White House determined to control its message and avert the perception that the president is backing down from his prior insistence that Ghaddafi must go.

The flap will soon pass and be forgotten. But it has underscored concerns about Clapper, who is probably known to many a causal observer of Washington politics mainly–and unfairly–as “that intelligence guy who keeps saying dumb things.”

Already in his brief tenure Clapper has been caught unawares about a major terror arrest and castigated for calling the devout Muslim Brotherhood “largely secular.” And in addition to his Libya comment yesterday, Clapper cited China and Russia in answer to a question about which nations pose the greatest “mortal threat” to the U.S., puzzling even senior Democrats on the panel who might have mentioned the likes of North Korea or Iran. (“I do not believe they are China or Russia, so I do not understand why that was put out there,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a party leader on intelligence issues, said yesterday “Clearly there’s a problem.”)

Meanwhile, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham didn’t like Clapper’s commentary about Libya, which he fears could give succor to the Ghaddafi regime. “Unfortunately, this isn’t the first questionable comment from the DNI Director,” Graham said in a statement calling for Clapper’s resignation. “However it should be the final straw.”

But it’s not clear what would be accomplished by getting rid of Clapper–or that he comes close to deserving the scorn he’s drawn, particularly from outraged conservatives. Two of Clapper’s supposed gaffes were non-events: In the case of the London terror arrests, it’s not shocking that he had not yet been briefed; the arrests had occurred that morning and did not involve any imminent threat against the U.S. Meanwhile his claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is “secular,” as a senior Republican member of Congress who deals with intelligence issues recently conceded to me, was obviously a clumsy way of expressing that the MB has recently tried to gain power in Egypt through the political system; no intelligence professional with a long record like Clapper’s could fail to be aware of the Brotherhood’s Islamist identity. And Clapper was probably even right in a literal sense about Russia and China, who have militaries and nuclear arsenals large enough to effectively destroy the U.S., whereas the North Korea and Iran could inflict far less damage.

As for Libya, Clapper was simply saying what many or most observers think is true. As the foreign policy academic Daniel Drezner points out, Tom Donilon’s assessment only makes sense if you believe the international community is prepared to crack down on Libya much harder than now seems likely. Lindsey Graham contends that Clapper should not have offered his view in a public forum. Perhaps. Or maybe Clapper was simply fulfilling the mandate Obama gave him, by showing “a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.”