Little did Director of National Intelligence James Clapper know that when he and two of his Obama administration colleagues sat down to discuss the terror threat with ABC’s Diane Sawyer earlier this month that his appearance would be the source of controversy. As has been widely reported, Clapper did not know what Sawyer was talking about when she asked a seemingly innocuous question concerning terror-related arrests in the UK just hours earlier. Clapper’s defenders, including inside the administration, have argued that he is a busy man, focused on many diverse threats, and so he wasn’t briefed when he should have been.
That isn’t good enough. The intelligence bureaucracy has to be better than this. Clapper should have known about the arrests as soon as they went down, if not beforehand. In fact, the more we learn about what the plotters were up to, as well as the efforts to stop them, the more troubling the DNI’s ignorance becomes.
Three facts, in particular, have emerged that make this lapse inexcusable.
First, the State Department says the plotters had the U.S. embassy in London in their sites. On Monday, a Foggy Bottom spokesman confirmed that the embassy was on the plotters’ “targeting list.” This is consistent with multiple press accounts coming out of the UK. The men were followed as they performed surveillance on a number of other sites as well. We have no way of knowing, based on publicly-available information, which of these targets they ultimately would have selected. But the U.S. embassy was on the short list.
A spokeswoman from the DNI argued, however, that Clapper “wasn't immediately briefed on London because it didn't appear to have a homeland nexus and there was no immediate action by the DNI required.” This is a weak argument for obvious reasons.
The UK cell may not have planned to attack the U.S. homeland, but a thwarted plot that may very well have targeted an American embassy is certainly a big deal. The DNI should have known about it. That there was no apparent “homeland nexus” is small comfort to the Americans working at the London embassy. In addition, embassies have long been attractive targets for jihadists. Any threat to an American embassy, especially from a group that was already practicing with explosives, is serious.
Second, according to the Guardian (UK), the alleged would-be terrorists were arrested “after several months of surveillance and monitoring by police and MI5 officers.”
American officials have repeatedly trumpeted the cross-Atlantic counterterrorism cooperation between the UK and U.S. How, then, could American authorities not have known that this bust was going down? And if they did know, as they almost certainly did, then how could they have forgotten to tell the DNI?
In other words, there are good reasons to believe that Clapper should have been informed not only after the fact, but also beforehand.
Third, the UK press has reported that the plotters were, at the very least, inspired by the notorious al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki. British authorities seized copies of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) Inspire magazine, which Awlaki has played a starring role in, as well as other extremist literature extolling the virtues of jihad. During a court appearance earlier this week, according to the Guardian, authorities alleged that Awlaki’s teachings provided inspiration for the plot.
Awlaki is currently one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. The al Qaeda cleric has both inspired and played a direct hand in terrorist attacks against the U.S. In an online interview, Awlaki himself counted Major Nidal Malik Hassan (the Fort Hood shooter) and Umar Farouq Abdulmutallab (who attempted to blow up Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009) as his “students.” Awlaki’s sermons also helped motivate Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber.
The list of terrorists either directly connected to, or inspired by, Anwar al Awlaki is extensive. Therefore, any intelligence connecting Awlaki to terror plotters – such as the UK men – has to be a top priority for the intelligence bureaucracy, no matter what else is going on. This is true even if authorities do not believe Awlaki was in direct contact with the aspiring jihadists. Awlaki is that much of a threat.
None of this is intended to be overly critical of Clapper. Yes, the UK arrests received extensive coverage on televised news shows the same day Clapper gave his interview on ABC. And, yes, he probably should have seen some of that footage or at least heard about it. There is no good reason for Diane Sawyer to know about a significant counterterrorism action in the UK before the DNI.
But the problems here run deeper. The intelligence bureaucracy has repeatedly failed to properly assimilate, share, analyze, and report on vital intelligence concerning the terrorists’ designs. These failures were a problem during the Bush years (9/11 attacks) and have continued to be a problem during the Obama administration (e.g. Fort Hood Shooting, Christmas Day 2009 plot), despite an extensive restructuring of the intelligence community.
Why didn’t the intelligence bureaucracy keep Clapper abreast of this situation before ABC News or the rest of the media ever heard about it? That’s the real question journalists and elected officials should be asking. After all these years, the intelligence community is still not sharing information in a timely fashion – even when it involves threats against American interests.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.