It is baffling how James Clapper still has a job. In an interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius on Wednesday, the Director of National Intelligence admitted that he had completely underestimated ISIS. He didn't anticipate how fast the Iraqi Army would fall apart, nor the “will to fight” among Islamic State troops. “I didn’t,” he somewhat lamely added, “see that.”
By now, most Americans realize ISIS caught the intelligence community by surprise. Clapper and his spies also thought that the Russians wouldn’t openly invade Ukraine, which maybe they actually got right, depending on how “openly” we would say the Russians invaded.
To be fair, it’s easy to nitpick the intelligence community and demand it to be omniscient. It is not. But for a nation that spends as much as the US on intelligence (over $50 billion a year, according to The Washington Post), we seem to have somehow missed the two biggest geopolitical events of the Obama presidency.
More damningly, Clapper’s admission comes on the heels of several instances of active malfeasance by the CIA, including its spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee as its staff members read the CIA's report on its detention and interrogation program. John Brennan, the CIA director, stoutly and wrongly denied anything had happened.
That followed Clapper lying under oath the previous year, when he told Sen. Ron Wyden that the intelligence community was definitely not collecting “any kind of data at all” on the American public. To be fair, that was basically true, if by “American public” he meant “German public” and by “any kind of data at all” he meant “data other than Angela Merkel’s cell phone records.” But otherwise it’s a bald-faced lie, though it might have been true for all it bothered the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Sure, Darryl Issa and several others called for James Clapper’s head, but without success. Your Chicago-school economists, of course, would say, obviously, the more efficient, market-based solution would be to take Congress out of the equation entirely so Americans could themselves spy on the CIA and thus reduce market distortion. But in the real world, we expect more effectiveness and integrity out of the intelligence community. So why haven't Clapper and Brennan been fired?
Well, essentially for two reasons. First, getting the Senate to confirm another senior intelligence official would be hell. Congress is in a surly mood on intelligence issues. It’s in a surly mood on most issues, frankly, but especially with the spies. The accumulating presumption of the intelligence community’s spying on both the demos and their representatives has embarrassed them.
Ordinarily, the executive branch’s upstaging the legislature wouldn’t be a problem; the disparity between the million-man federal government and the handful of legislative staffers monitoring it means that the executive can mostly operate in secrecy. Congress doesn't have the ability to oversee even a tiny percentage of federal programs; even on those it does, it mostly takes the federal government’s word for it.
It’s really only when that power imbalance gets rubbed in Congress’s face that the Members get cranky – for example, spying on their staff while they monitor the spying. Plus, a confirmation hearing would include unpleasant questions about ISIS, the Russian reset, START, Assad, Benghazi, and Iran blowing through another nuclear deadline. Obama and Harry Reid do not want to risk nasty sound bites on a lengthy and embarrassing confirmation process for new intelligence chiefs, and certainly not forty days before the midterms.
The second reason Brennan and Clapper still have jobs is that Obama likes them. Brennan in particular was the President's personal counterterrorism advisor before Brennan became CIA director and had a direct role in shaping the administration's conception of the War on Terror as a counterterrorism problem.
It has been well reported by now that drone strikes have gone up under Obama; that Obama spends his weekly counterterrorism hour leafing through binders of aspiring targets to select the ones for culling; that Obama is whacking targets all over Pakistan and the Middle East, reportedly with great daring.
Global counterterrorism – unmanned robots and ninjas killing jihadis, sans warning, sans risk, based on Obama's personal Book of the Dead – is a crisp distillation of the Obama Weltanschauung. It was bloodless, and certainly not “stupid s***,” and intended to take the place of George Bush’s Long War.
It would eclipse Bush’s big thoughts about WHY terrorists were crazy, where they came from, and why they came from there. Bush, the deep thinker, had been overly intellectualizing a fight that was to the Alpha Betas in the Obama Administration, a simple muscle movement. Who needs this democracy crusade when we have drones?
Brennan and Clapper brought the President “counterterrorism,” and counterterrorism brought us Osama bin Laden. But it also brought us the collapse of Iraq and the unshackling of Russia from any basic strategic constraint. It brought us a host of unexpected and ill-reacted geopolitical upheavals, from the Iranian pro-democracy riots in 2009 to the Arab Spring to the implosion of Syria, ignored until it was a disaster, further ignored until it was a crisis. Redefining the world as a counterterrorism matrix blinded us to the macro shifts; it overlaid a falsely individual heuristic of victory – is X dead? – onto a world that shifts en masse. And despite all the dead bodies in Pakistan, ISIS was one such masse.
So in one sense Clapper and Brennan should not be fired. They’ve given us nothing the President did not want, and have lost none of his confidence. But by now, they should have lost some of ours.
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