White House defends intelligence chief after his comments startle senators

Laura Rozen

The Obama administration defended its top intelligence official after he startled senators at a hearing Thursday by asserting that he thought Libya's Muammer Gadhafi would prevail in his battle against opposition forces. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said that he believes China and Russia pose the greatest state-based threats to the United States.

"I think the [Libyan] regime has more logistical resources in terms of the equipment they have," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday.

"So I just think from a standpoint of attrition … that over ... the longer term that the regime will prevail," Clapper said, in answer to a question posed by Independent Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

The White House carefully stressed that Clapper's assessment was not inconsistent with its call for  Gadhafi to go. The former Defense Intelligence Agency chief was offering a purely "one dimensional," military "order of battle" analysis  of Libyan force capabilities, as National Security Adviser Tom Donilon put it on a call with journalists Thursday.

"If you did a static, one-dimensional assessment look at the order of battle, you can come to various conclusions" Donilon said. "My view is ... that things in the Middle East and in Libya need to be looked at not through a static but dynamic lens, not through a one-dimensional but multi-dimensional lens. If you look at it that way, you get a different picture."

"The president has made it crystal-clear that Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, he's lost the confidence of his people and should leave," Donilon said.

Clapper also raised eyebrows in the same hearing when, in answer to a question about which nation-states pose the greatest threat to the United States, he answered China and Russia. Clapper quickly added, however, that he believes terrorism, rather than any particular nation state, poses the greatest threat to the United States.

Under questioning by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Clapper further clarified his remarks to indicate China and Russia pose a threat from a capabilities standpoint, not in intent.Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes echoed the same point in the call with reporters.

"Clearly China and Russia do not represent the biggest U.S. adversaries in the world today," Rhodes said, adding the biggest threats to U.S. interests are posed by al Qaeda, North Korea and Iran. "In terms of pure capability, however, obviously China and Russia are countries with large arsenals and armies."

"The president is very happy with the work of Gen. Clapper and works with him every day," Donilon added.

It's not the first time Clapper has mis-spoke or sounded somewhat out-of-touch. Last month at a hearing, Clapper described Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as primarily secular. A few months earlier, in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Clapper was apparently unaware of a major British terrorism arrest that had occurred that morning.

But despite the White House's expression of support Thursday, two Republican senators said they thought Clapper's effectiveness was now in question.

"President should replace Director of National Intelligence (DNI)," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a tweet Thursday.

"Clapper's effectiveness in question," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said in a tweet, which linked to an article that he summarized thusly: "'Muslim Bros are secular, Gaddafi will prevail and China/Russia top mortal threats.'"

Chairman Levin however threw Clapper a life-line, although he acknowledged he too had been "taken aback" by Clapper's remarks.

"I was taken aback by Director Clapper's statement about China and Russia and, frankly, I was surprised by how long it took him to correct the impression that he created," Levin said in a statement Thursday.  "He did finally correct it, however, and I am glad that he did, and I am satisfied with his correction."

Clapper is the Obama administration's second director of National Intelligence, a position that was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Past agency heads have faced bitter turf battles with other intelligence agencies and the military over intelligence community authorities and budget. One of the position's few privileges: The DNI gets face-time with the president almost every morning as he delivers the daily intelligence briefing.

(Director of National Intelligence James Clapper speaks with Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) before a Senate Armed Services committee hearing on current and future worldwide threats, Thursday March 10, 2011. AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt.)