Tim Cavanaugh said it best at National Review: if President Obama really believes what he said about James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence needs to be fired.
For member of the low-information crowd, the Commander-in-Chief gave his intelligence chief a less-than-rousing endorsement in an interview with 60 Minutes, telling Steve Kroft:
“I think our head of the intelligence community Jim Clapper has acknowledged that they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” the president told Steve Croft. When Croft went on to note that Clapper had also mentioned the failure of the “intelligence community” (a catch-all term for the 17 intelligence agencies that are publicly known, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the intelligence services maintained by such varied departments as Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security) to get an accurate measure of the Iraqi army’s ability to fight, Obama responded “That’s true. That’s absolutely true.”
In other words, Mr. Clapper, a retired Air Force Lieutenant General who has run two major intel organizations (the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) and served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, among other achievements, has presided over a major intelligence failure that has jeopardized national security. There is a growing consensus among intel professionals that ISIS fighters not only control vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, they are also present on American soil, meaning that attacks against the homeland are a matter of “if” and not “when.”
So why does Jim Clapper still have a job?
Part of the answer is rooted in history. Remarkably, few senior intelligence officers have been sacked, despite routine failures by our Intelligence Community over the past 75 years. When the Japanese surprised our forces at Pearl Harbor in 191, the Pacific Fleet intelligence officer, Commander Edwin Layton, kept his job, and continued his climb in the Navy hierarchy, eventually retiring as a Rear Admiral. The same held true for Commander Joseph Rochefort, who ran the communications intercept and code-breaking operation in Hawaii, and senior leaders at the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) in Washington.
Similar patterns followed other intel debacles, including China’s entry into the Korean War (1950); the Tet Offensive in Vietnam (1968), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Iranian Revolution (1979) and of course, the 9-11 attacks. In most cases, the intel community completely missed the unfolding events and we were caught flat-footed. Literally thousands of Americans paid for these mistakes with their lives. But despite the hand-wringing and blue-ribbon commissions that followed many of the intel catastrophes, few senior spooks lost their jobs.
In some cases, it was deemed unwise to change intel leadership as the country plunged into conflict, or faced a major foreign policy crisis. After 9-11, President George W. Bush made a conscious decision to keep CIA Director George Tenet on the job, despite public and Congressional clamor for his scalp. Mr. Bush believed that forcing Tenet out would leave the intelligence community leaderless as the nation entered a full-fledged war with Islamic terrorists. In those days, the CIA Director also served as head of the nation’s intel apparatus, so the president’s concerns were not unfounded.
But in other situations, it’s convenient to keep the spooks as a scapegoat, and that seems to be the case with Mr. Obama. When NSA turncoat Edward Snowden revealed the extent of U.S. collection efforts, the commander-in-chief sought to distance himself from the scandal, noting his skepticism about such programs as a candidate for the presidency. Of course, the fact that he approved those efforts–and expanded them–from the Oval Office is a completely different matter, something that angry intel officials pointed out as the Snowden affair mushroomed into a major controversy.
The spooks also pushed back earlier this year, when members of Mr. Obama’s national security team tried to blame them for failing to detect Russia’s occupation of Crimea. As Shane Harris writes at Foreign Policy:
The spies, said a senior U.S. official, had “warned that that the region was a flashpoint for a possible military conflict and that the Russians were preparing military assets for possible deployment to Ukraine” before the first of Putin’s shock troops stepped foot in the country. U.S. spies have been on edge ever since, which helps explain why they fought back so fiercely when the White House seemed to be blaming them for not predicting the success of the Islamic State.
Indeed, the notion that our intel agencies missed the rise of ISIS strains credulity. There were plenty of warnings in recent months, including the testimony of Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, then-Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency:
In February, [Flynn] presented the Senate Armed Services Committee with his agency’s “annual threat assessment.” The assessment had a prominent warning about the Islamic State: The group “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group’s ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria,” Flynn said in his prepared remarks.
After the Islamic State captured Mosul and Tikrit, U.S. intelligence officials pushed back hard against the suggestion that they’d been blindsided. Analysts had “closely tracked” the group and its predecessor organizations for years, said one senior U.S. intelligence official. “[D]uring the past year, [analysts] routinely provided strategic warning of ISIL’s growing strength in Iraq and increasing threat to Iraq’s stability,” the official said.
General Flynn, widely regarded as one of the most effective directors in recent DIA history, was forced into retirement in August. His sins? Openly challenging the Obama Administration narrative that Al Qaida’s brand of extremism died with Osama bin Laden in 2010, and pointing out the White House’s preferred strategy of killing terrorists with drones really isn’t a strategy. A replacement for General Flynn has yet to be named.
Which brings us to the real reason that Mr. Clapper is still gainfully employed. As a senior intelligence officer for almost 40 years, Clapper has fought his share of bureaucratic wars and felt it was necessary to fall on his sword (again). His motive is probably rooted in an effort to preserve intel programs and resources considered vital to the nation’s security. Take another round for the White House, and get another plus-up in the intel budget, and secure approval–or renewal–of controversial collection programs.
But serving as the President’s fall guy for the crisis du jour also entails organizational risks. The push back from current and former intel officials reflects a community that is fed up with the administration blame game and is quite willing to leak information that depicts a White House disinterested in reading intel assessments while the world burns.
We’ve been down this road countless times before. One reason that Commanders Layton and Rochefort kept their jobs after Pearl Harbor is that key players in the Navy chain–most notably their boss, Admiral Chester Nimitz, realized that his intel officers were operating at a disadvantage. In the days before the Japanese attack, they were denied critical intel from decoded Japanese diplomatic traffic (which would have made enemy military intentions more clear), and both were prevented from sharing their own decrypts with Nimitz’s predecessor, Admiral Husband Kimmel, and his Army counterpart, Lieutenant General Walter Short. These realities have fueled decades of conspiracy theories about FDR “inviting” an attack on Pearl Harbor, while keeping his operational commanders in the dark.
These days, the administration seems to be feigning ignorance, but that excuse doesn’t pass muster. By all accounts, Mr. Obama was warned about the rise of ISIS and chose to disregard his intelligence assessments. With no re-election to fret over, and a war-weary public, perhaps the President calculated he would never be held accountable and if there was a minor kerfuffle, Mr. Clapper would readily take the blame. Perhaps that’s why the DNI still has a job, and President Obama skips almost 60% of his daily intelligence briefs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
ISIS has (rightly) been described as a cancer, one that is spreading to our own shores. When the terror Army unleashes its fury in an American city, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Obama tries to blame his DNI–again–and if the public actually demands presidential accountability.