It’s time for James Clapper to show a little American pride, and resign in disgrace.
That suggestion is made with great respect for the director of national intelligence’s service to his country; Clapper deployed twice to Vietnam as an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force and retired as a lieutenant general after a career focused on intelligence gathering. It is also no reflection on Clapper’s work as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency or under secretary of defense for intelligence. Nor is this meant to prejudice his achievements in the world of intelligence contracting, which were extensive and could be quite lucrative after he leaves his post as DNI. And there is certainly no personal animus. If anything, the hangdog Hoosier’s brow-mopping demeanor while giving false testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee made him seem sort of pitiable. He was lying under oath, but he felt bad enough about it to make classic liar’s tells for the camera, which is almost like being honest, in a way.
But Clapper’s resignation has already been demanded by a person whose authority is beyond our poor powers to add or subtract: the president of the United States.
There is just no other way to parse President Obama’s comments on Sunday’s 60 Minutes.
“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 Kroft. When Kroft 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.”
The president has been widely criticized for saying “they,” for the sub-Trumanesque manner in which he passed the buck for a major failure in the defense of the United States back down to his underlings. But leaders blame subordinates all the time. To suppose that it’s always wrong to blame a subordinate is to assume that every system works perfectly and wants only the right leader to turn on the machine.
The problem with blaming a subordinate is that after you’ve done it, you’re still the leader. If the subordinate failed, he or she needs to be held accountable. One of the reasons Barack Obama is president today is the sense among voters that the George W. Bush administration was an accountability-free zone, with no careers coming to an end despite the manifest failure of 9/11 and the dissolution of Iraq. In fact, “most transparent administration in history” has already taken its place alongside “summer of recovery,” “you didn’t build that,” and many other Obama catch phrases that turned into punch lines.
If the president wants to turn around the disdain in which his pronouncements are increasingly held by the public, he needs to get better at firing people. He has had a very slow trigger finger so far, having failed to complete the purge of his original economic brain trust until well into his second term. By comparison, the unaccountable George W. Bush went through two secretaries of the Treasury during his first term, which included a real-estate bubble that was very popular at the time. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton went through three secretaries of the Treasury each despite presiding over lengthy economic booms marked by healthy job creation and a strong dollar (and in Clinton’s case, budget surpluses with substantial debt reduction). By comparison, Obama’s Treasury secretary Tim Geithner managed to keep his seat warm through four years of what has turned out to be the longest period of economic stagnation since the Roosevelt administration.
Obama has never affected any passion for military affairs, but he has been occasionally willing to defenestrate defense officials — particularly those, like General Stanley McChrystal, whose offenses diminish the dignity of the executive. But endangering the nation is a more serious offense than insulting the vice president, even if historically it has usually not been treated that way. Take the president at his word: Posit that Clapper’s team didn’t realize what was going on among the Sunnis in Syria and failed to comprehend that the Iraqi army — whose incompetence was hardly a big secret — would not fight. How do you square that failure of intelligence with continued confidence in the head of the intelligence community? As that great expert on national security Samuel L. Jackson (who has starred in both spy and military films) said in another context, “There must be a very short line for your job.”
The administration Monday reverted to form, running away from the president’s own words. “Predicting the will of foreign security forces to fight for their country is difficult,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told Fox News’s Ed Henry during Monday’s press conference. “This is something that Director Clapper himself has acknowledged.”
In other words, the director of national intelligence, in the course of collecting private data from millions of unwitting Americans (but not “voyeuristically” so) and setting aside basic principles of search and seizure that were enshrined in English common law before the U.S. Constitution was written, cannot be expected to have any useful knowledge about mass-murdering declared enemies of the United States, who are in the process of imposing a Wahhabist caliphate on a country nearly 4,500 Americans died fighting over within the last eleven years.
We’ve come to expect this kind of feckless shilly-shallying from the Obama administration. There are dozens of people just in the Washington area who could take over as DNI at any time. And firing people is good for leaders, good for the constitutents, and sometimes even good for the person getting fired. Why the delay?
And how can a president who says so many words have so little grasp of what words mean? Obama has already given Clapper a public show of no confidence. He just doesn’t seem to want to admit what that means.