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12.21.10

James Clapper's Intel Slip

Obama’s top intelligence officer admitted to Diane Sawyer he did not know about a major bomb plot busted in the U.K. this week. Howard Kurtz on the administration’s baffling spin.

The White House is engaged in some awkward damage control today after its director of national intelligence had to learn about the London terror arrests from Diane Sawyer.

Cable television has jumped on the embarrassing episode, reported by The Daily Beast Tuesday night, and the administration’s spin has been somewhat contradictory.

After a long pause, a puzzled-looking Clapper said: “London?”

In the ABC interview with Sawyer—taped Monday at 4 p.m., hours after news of the arrests was all over television and the Web—James Clapper appeared unfamiliar with the arrests. The interview was shown Tuesday tonight on World News.

"First of all, London," Sawyer said. "How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here?... Director Clapper?"

After a long pause, a puzzled-looking Clapper said: "London?" Chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was part of the interview along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, had to jump in and explain the arrests.

Sawyer gave Clapper another chance later in the interview.

"I was a little surprised you didn't know about London," she said.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't," Clapper said.

How to dig out of that hole? First Clapper’s office issued this statement: “The question about this specific news development was ambiguous. The DNI's knowledge of the threat streams in Europe is profound and multidimensional, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.”

The only thing that’s ambiguous is why the administration is denying the obvious. This morning, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, told reporters that Clapper was, ah, busy.

Asked if the intelligence chief should have been briefed on the London arrests, Brennan said: “Yes. And I know there was attention by the media about these arrests and it was constantly on the news networks. I am glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what is coming out of the media.”

No one wants him watching cable all day, but does he have Internet access? How about a staff that would keep him abreast of terror-related news, particularly before a major network interview?

The administration quickly retreated. Clapper’s spokeswoman, Jamie Smith, said in a statement that yes, well, there was a problem:
 
“Director Clapper had not yet been briefed on the arrests in the United Kingdom at the time of this interview taping.  The DNI was working throughout the day on important intelligence matters, including monitoring military and political developments on the Korean Peninsula, providing answers to questions concerning the ratification of the START nuclear treaty, and other classified issues.  He wasn't immediately briefed on London because it didn't appear to have a homeland nexus and there was no immediate action by the DNI required. Nevertheless, he should have been briefed on the arrests, and steps have been taken to ensure that he is in the future.  The intelligence community as a whole was fully aware of this development and tracking it closely.”

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For the president’s top intelligence officer not to be intimately familiar with the case—and not to have been briefed before a network interview—is stunning. It inevitably calls to mind the moment during Hurricane Katrina when FEMA’s Michael Brown was unaware during a Nightline interview of deteriorating conditions in Louisiana’s Superdome, despite constant news reports that day.

“Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio?” Ted Koppel asked.

Rather than rush on the air with the news, Sawyer and her staff gave Clapper’s office more than a day to offer any followup comments. The director of national intelligence issued this statement:

“The question about this specific news development was ambiguous. The DNI's knowledge of the threat streams in Europe is profound and multidimensional, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate.”

Ambiguous? Multidimensional? That, in journalistic terms, is known as a non-denial denial.

After that lame excuse about Sawyer's question being ambiguous, the national intelligence office acknowledged the obvious Wednesday. “Director Clapper had not yet been briefed on the arrests in the United Kingdom at the time of this interview taping,” his office said in a statement.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.