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DNI Clapper Defends Intel Handling of Benghazi Attacks; Ducks Commercial Imagery Question

Posted by Colin Clark on

ORLANDO: The terrorists who attacked the Benghazi consulate, killing US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and four others, apparently maintained web, cell and radio silence before they acted, giving the US no hint an attack was imminent.

“If people do not emit or discuss their behavior, it’s hard to find out what they are going to do,” Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper said at the huge annual conference of intelligence professionals called Geoint. The U.S., he made clear, did not have tactical warning of the attacks. He noted that there were anti-American protests in 54 countries when the attacks occurred, clearly implying the intelligence community had its hands full that day.

Clapper’s comments may shed some light on why administration officials were caught so flat-footed in responding to the attacks, which the DNI made clear they did not expect. It may also help explain why information about the actual attacks appears to have been so elusive. The defensive tone of the director’s remarks made it pretty obvious that he is very tired of what he called “the endless rehashing” of the ambassador’s death and what happened and why.

On perhaps the hottest issue here — the future of the commercial space imagery market — Clapper restated his commitment to the purchase of imagery from DigitalGlobe and GeoEye but avoided saying anything substantive about their proposed merger.

“There is no bigger fan of commercial imagery than I,” he said. “I was a fan of it before it became fashionable.”

But the imagery budget has been cut and is in line for deeper cuts, though we don’t know the dollars involved. Clapper characterized it this way: “All we’ve done here is to decline the slope of increase slightly on commercial imagery.” Otherwise, he and Laetitia Long, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, restated their commitments to buying commercial imagery and said they would support the Department of Justice and the Defense Department as they analyze the pending merger.

On other budgetary issues, Clapper, as any responsible administration official must, went on the record saying that the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration “could be quite draconian” and would, he said in response to a question from the audience, “throttle us back about to where we were in 2009.” While that would still mean the intelligence community would muster impressive capabilities, the fact that cuts would be made without regard to the importance of any of a given capability could inflict considerable short-term harm on the IC’s ability to function. If the intelligence community would be granted the ability to decide where to make cuts, that would ease Clapper’s concerns, at least in the short term.

The DNI went on to attack the issue of leaks, a popular topic among some administration officials. He said the intelligence community was acting “to help stop the hemorrhaging.” Among other things, he said emails and other forms of communication were being audited. The standard polygraph question is being benchmarked so that everyone gets the same question and is asked it each time. And the basic process of obtaining clearance is being sped up and reformed. For top secret clearance the average time to get cleared was 315 days and is now down to 53 days. “We are gong to push hard. I have taken this on myself,” Clapper said, but “this is still fundamentally about personal trust.”

In an interesting tidbit, Clapper made the case for a set term for the DNI, which he said “would be a good thing” and help ensure protection of the “the bedrock pillars of intelligence,” objectivity and independence. Responding to a question from the audience, he carefully sidestepped any specific term, noting only with a chuckle that the FBI director’s term of 10 years was pretty long. His comments come as Congress explores a set term for the head of NASA.

What do you think?