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Why Does Clapper Stick Around?

James Clapper, seated at a table with Coast Guard officials
photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick Kelley, courtesy the U.S. Coast Guard

If James Clapper had any self-respect, he would have resigned by now.

Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, effectively received a vote of no confidence from his boss in front of the entire country. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, President Obama acknowledged the United States’ failure to address the Islamic State group’s rise rapidly and seriously enough. The president got more specific than that, however, and singled out Clapper as having underestimated the extent of the threat.

“Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said to journalist Steve Kroft.

Characteristically, Obama took no personal responsibility for what is actually a strategic failure, not an intelligence failure. He made extensive use of “they” in discussing who was to blame rather than “I,” or even “we.”

“I thought it was interesting he used the pronoun ‘they,’ as though somehow he was detached from the people who work for his administration,” New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie said in response to the president’s interview. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, was also vocally critical of the interview.

Nor is it only the president’s political opponents who take issue with his characterization of the situation. Several senior members of the intelligence community have told journalists that failure to confront the threat was not a failure to identify it. One former senior Pentagon official bluntly told The Daily Beast, “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting or he’s bullshitting.”

Obama did not entirely fabricate the idea that Clapper acknowledged underestimating the Islamic State group, but (as Kroft pointed out in the interview), Clapper’s acknowledgement was more specific than that. Earlier in September, Clapper told The Washington Post that the intelligence community had monitored the group’s rise and activities, but “What we didn’t do was predict the will to fight.” He compared the Islamic State group to the Viet Cong and further admitted that he and his subordinates had overestimated the fighting capabilities of the Iraqi armed forces.

Even assuming both Obama and Clapper were honest in their assessments of blame for the current situation with the Islamic State group, Clapper should choose to resign or Obama should ask him to. Tim Cavanaugh, writing in The National Review, said frankly, “The problem with blaming a subordinate is that after you’ve done it, you’re still the leader.” The intelligence community, and Clapper specifically, are still in trouble with the public for their massive privacy overreaches; if the president believes (or wants us to believe he believes) that Clapper is also incapable of identifying as clear a threat as the Islamic State group, the only choice remaining is to replace him.

Even so, it is plain enough to see that the main problem was strategy, not information. Many informed observers, in and out of the government, warned early in Syria’s civil conflict that by not arming or supplying Assad’s relatively moderate opponents, we were creating a vacuum that more radical militants could, and eventually did, fill. Many warned, too, that by leaving Iraq with no American military presence, which Obama once touted as one of the great accomplishments of his first term, we left a military vacancy that the Islamic State group was able to exploit in order to grab a huge swath of territory, including the major city of Mosul.

Obama, even today, insists that he will send no American combat troops to Iraq or Syria, even as members of his military high command, including Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say that this may be needed to accomplish what Obama says is the goal of destroying the Islamic State group completely. But blaming Clapper was not about lack of information, or even lack of informed advice. It was about the fact that the administration failed, and the president wants somebody else to take the blame for that failure. Clapper is a convenient fall guy.

Clapper and the intelligence community may not have precisely forecast the speed with which the militant tumor would grow and metastasize, but they correctly diagnosed the malignancy long ago. It was Obama’s decision to keep the American military scalpel on the tray.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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