Is James Clapper’s Ignorance a Bug? Or a Feature?

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has been getting beat up because he got embarrassed by Diane Sawyer when he admitted he had no clue about a 12-person counterterrorism arrest in the UK earlier the day of the interview.

In an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, taped Monday afternoon, Clapper was asked about the arrests, which had happened hours before and were featured on all of the network morning news broadcasts. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, who were also participating in the joint interview, were aware of the arrests.

“First of all, London,” Sawyer began. “How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here? … Director Clapper?”

“London?” Clapper said after a pause, before Brennan entered the conversation explaining the arrests.

Later in the interview, Sawyer returned to the subject.

“I was a little surprised you didn’t know about London,” Sawyer told Clapper.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t,” he replied.

As a threshold matter, it would be the intelligence community’s fault as a whole if Clapper should have been, but wasn’t, briefed about this arrest (the Administration has explained that Clapper was involved in START Treaty briefings all day Monday, and so didn’t get briefed), not Clapper alone. But I’m also wondering whether there’s more to his not getting briefed.

Note, first of all, that there are two kinds of briefings Clapper might have–but apparently didn’t–get: briefing about the investigation itself, and a briefing about the arrests, either before or after they happened.

Here’s some of what we know about the investigation and raid:

  • The investigation, which has been going on for months, has been described as “intelligence-driven”
  • Authorities triggered the raid after intercepted communications revealed the plotters were preparing to act
  • Britian’s Home Secretary was told of the raids during the week of December 12 through 18
  • Lord Alex Carlile, who acts as a watchdog on UK terrorism operations, also described watching one of the operations involved in the investigation
  • The group has ties to a known (and banned) British radical Muslim group
  • Like many of the recent arrests in the US, this group is alleged to have been influenced by Anwar al-Awlaki
  • Muslim leaders in Cardiff tipped authorities off to a group of radicalized youth though MI5 seemed to already bee aware of the group; the group held a meeting two weeks ago attended by up to 30 people

Now, the Administration portrayed Clapper’s non-briefing as a Monday event. That is, they never suggested he should have known about the investigation before Monday.

I find that interesting for several reasons. First, GCHQ and NSA can work closely together to get coverage within their own countries, so it’s possible the NSA would have been involved in the surveillance process. And the allegation that these men followed Anwar al-Awlaki’s publications might further suggest US involvement in online surveillance (though I tend to distrust the Awlaki allegations as just the product of the Awlaki-villainization industry). There were no hints of international money transfers, but if there were, the US still has control over SWIFT-based investigations.

Then there are all the suggestions that this investigation has been going on some time, and the decision to arrest the men was made at least three days before the arrests.

In other words, it is at least possible the US had a role in this investigation, and it is possible the UK could have shared this information with the US intelligence community some time before Monday, when Clapper was too busy to be briefed on the arrest.

But he was so unaware of the impending arrests as to be taken totally by surprise, suggesting he, at least, had no such awareness of it.

Which leads me to wonder about two things. First, how long did John Brennan and Janet Napolitano know of the investigation? Did they keep the DNI out of the loop on preliminary reviews of the investigation? Before the Intelligence Authorization, ODNI was subject to FOIA in a way that CIA and other operational intelligence units are exempt, but that problem should have been fixed.

Remember, too, how badly burned the UK got in 2006 on their investigation of the liquid-based explosives. Facing mid-term elections and falling approval ratings, the Bush Administration wanted the Brits to trigger arrests earlier than they were prepared to do. To force the issue, Cheney sent Jose Rodriguez to Pakistan to arrest Rashid Rauf, a key contact of the plotters. Add to that US complaints after a British court released details on Binyam Mohamed’s torture. While I have every reason to believe the British and Americans still share intelligence information freely, I do wonder whether Clapper’s ignorance of this arrest reflect some limits on that sharing?

Now, maybe Clapper did have advance warning of these arrests. Or maybe he didn’t–and he was just too busy to be briefed on Monday.

But if there’s a failure here–or some limits on the sharing of information–then they’re more systemic than just Clapper and his immediate staff.

Though, it does all raise one question. As the Guardian reminds, Clapper’s the guy in charge of Obama’s intelligence briefings. So as interesting as the question of whether Clapper knew of the investigation and arrests is the question of whether Obama did.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. SaltinWound says:

    I do not know why the only way these guys know anything is through briefings. I knew about these arrests. He would have needed the curiosity to go online once during the day.

  2. Gitcheegumee says:

    Well, FWIW worth, I find it very interesting that he admitted to (allegedly)knowing nothing.

    WTF?

    WHO willingly does that… and WHY?

  3. dakine01 says:

    Within the software industry there is a term often used to document things that the programmers did not anticipate but that they do not want to call a “bug”

    So I’d vote for Clapper’s ignorance to be an “Undocumented feature” – Not something they were actually relying upon but welcome nevertheless.

  4. Ymhotep says:

    This is just one more example of the propaganda manufactured by the intelligence industry to keep fear alive in the general public. The 18 to 30 year olds are rioting in the streets of England because of the governments new austerity measures. So it was time to bring the Islamofascist boogie man back into the picture. Manipulation pure and simple. Peace

    • eCAHNomics says:

      “We make so much shit up. What? You expect me to keep track of everything we fabricate?” J. Clapper

    • sona says:

      18-30 year olds are not rioting but exercising their legitimate democratic right to protest against tuition fee hikes of 400% and 80% cut in university funding

      also, constant fear mongering is more a US phenomenon and i have experienced nothing like it anywhere else

      the uk spin machine is not so hyperactive in fear mongering and it wouldn’t get away with it either because independent media still thrives within the mainstream

      why do you raise the ghoul of islamofascism? it is perfectly clear that mi5 was contacted by the local muslim community because they found those currently under arrest as having somewhat troublesome attitudes

  5. tremoluxman says:

    These ass-hats don’t know sheep shit from spaghetti. I’m sure they are all good bum-sniffing executives and know how to comport themselves during a job interview, but knowing the nuts-and-bolts of day to day intelligence work? Not so much.

      • Mary says:

        Aww, com’on – how can you build a Frankenstein without nuts and, especially, bolts?

        Apparently Frank wasn’t kept briefed on London terrorism schemes either – just the current location of pitchforks and torches.

  6. Fractal says:

    having somewhat troublesome attitudes

    Now we are getting somewhere! That remark right there is exactly why these arrests struck me as much ado about nothing. In the U.S. we don’t (yet) arrest citizens for their “somewhat troublesome attitudes.” I have yet to read a single U.S. news account that justifies treating the arrests of these dozen or so UK residents as unraveling a seriously-dangerous plot. None of the news coverage has said squat about what the gang allegedly was planning.

    The UK Guardian story linked to by Marcy had zero facts about the target(s) or weapon(s) or timing of the plot. The only “related” stories it linked to were from 2004 & 2005. There was nothing about the plot on the Guardian’s UK news landing page as of 7:30 pm East Coast time Christmas Day. A search on the Guardian’s site for “terror arrests” turned up only three stories, two from the 20th & one from the 21st.

    The later of the three Guardian stories on the arrest of the 12 British nationals of Bangladeshi origin offered exactly 34 words to describe the specific targets & tactics:

    alleged plot to attack multiple targets in the UK.

    **********

    A highly-placed source in the police operation said that the alleged plot was targeting shopping areas in the West Midlands and important sites in London.

    The Telegraph story of Dec. 22 managed only these 17 words:

    Sources said the gang was planning a “spectacular” attack on banks, shops and “iconic” sites in London.

    The NY Times story datelined Dec. 20 managed only these 23 words to explain the purported threat:

    The BBC said the 12 suspects were involved in a plot to bomb unspecified targets in Britain and were inspired by Al Qaeda.

    The Times slipped up slightly by admitting

    The officers who made the arrests — apparently after weeks of surveillance — were not armed, the police said, suggesting that they had not moved to thwart an imminent terrorist attack.

    I would have no trouble at all believing that Clapper was not briefed because those arrests were routine, run-of-the-mill, non-urgent investigative busts, NOT involving “an imminent terrorist attack.” In other words, a non-story that he should not waste his time on. The hullabaloo from the teevee newshounds should be understood as griping that their terror theater performance did not impress the DNI.

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