How bad was Intelligence Czar’s Libya “gaffe”?
The columnist Michael Kinsley once quipped that in Washington a “gaffe” is when a political notable accidentally tells the truth. Intelligence and national security officials are describing the latest controversial statements about Libya by National Intelligence Director James Clapper as that kind of “gaffe.”
At a Congressional hearing on Thursday, Clapper said that rebels trying to oust Muammar Gaddafi from power had lost momentum and that the Libyan leader could well survive for some time to come. “We believe that Gaddafi is in this for the long haul…He appears to be hunkering down for the duration.”
“This is kind of a stalemate back and forth,” Clapper said, but added that, “I think over the long term that the (Gaddafi) regime will prevail.”
White House officials subsequently distanced the administration somewhat from Clapper’s remarks and President Obama repeated on Friday that he wants Gaddafi to go.
Clapper was criticized for his his upbeat assessment of Gaddafi’s prospects. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Armed Services committee, called his statement “devastating” and while “some of (Clapper’s) analysis could prove to be accurate,” the intelligence czar was unwise to voice it in public.
But intelligence and national security officials defended Clapper’s remarks, saying that they represented an accurate summary of current U.S. intelligence reporting and analysis on the relative military postures of Gaddafi and his opponents. They said intelligence operatives must advise their “customers” and are not supposed to be influenced by wishful thinking or political or foreign policy considerations.
They say Clapper shouldn’t be blamed for laying out professional judgements that don’t fit a party line.
A 47 year veteran of the U.S. “intelligence community,” Clapper is a retired Air Force general who previously served as top intelligence official at the Pentagon and chief of two of the Defense Department’s principal spy agencies, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (which analyzes spy satellite photos).
But like some of his predecessors as Director of National Intelligence — a supremo job which was created by Congress after 9/11 to supposedly increase cooperation between often fractious U.S. spy units — Clapper, who spent much of his career in the shadows, has faced uncomfortable moments when placed in the public spotlight.
Last December in an interview on holiday terror threats with ABC TV anchor Diane Sawyer, he appeared oblivious to information about a series of arrests in an alleged British terrorism investigation which had taken place earlier the same day. (Aides later said that Clapper closely followed intelligence reporting on terrorism and suggested the question Clapper had been asked was “ambiguous.”)
Then earlier this year, in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Clapper again created a stir when he described Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement as “largely secular.” In that case Clapper committed a real gaffe, not a politically incorrect one. Clapper’s office later issued a clarification saying he was trying to say that the brotherhood in Egypt had worked through the secular political system under the now-deposed regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Photo credit: Reuters/Jason Reed (Clapper testifies before a Senate committee in February)