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Spy chief defended over flub

White House says he wasn’t briefed about terror plot

By Matt Apuzzo
Associated Press / December 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON — After the nation’s top intelligence official fumbled a simple question about terrorism on national television, the White House yesterday acknowledged that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had been in the dark about a potential terrorist plot disrupted in England.

It was an inconvenient distraction for the Obama administration, which had hoped to use the day to reassure Americans it had fixed the mistakes that nearly allowed a militant to take down a US-bound airliner last Christmas.

Clapper appeared stumped Tuesday night when asked on ABC News whether a significant terror plot uncovered in London could have security implications in the United States. The plot had received significant news coverage this week and was a major focus in the United Kingdom, America’s closest intelligence partner.

“London?’’ Clapper asked, looking across the table at President Obama’s homeland security adviser, John Brennan, who was also being interviewed.

In practice, British and American authorities work hand-in-hand on such cases regardless of how involved senior intelligence officials get. But it was an embarrassing moment for the director of national intelligence. The job, created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has failed to live up to its billing as a central, strong overseer of the nation’s intelligence infrastructure.

And the image of Clapper turning, perplexed, to Brennan, only reinforced the impression by many in the intelligence community that Brennan really controls the nation’s intelligence apparatus.

Brennan said Clapper had been preoccupied with tensions between North and South Korea and with helping ensure the passage of a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

“Should he have been briefed by his staff on those arrests?’’ Brennan said. “Yes.’’

After stepping up airstrikes against terrorism suspects in Pakistan early in his term, the Obama administration has faced repeated threats at home over the past year.

Last Christmas a suspect linked to Al Qaeda was discovered with a bomb in his underwear after he nearly detonated the device aboard a plane as it approached Detroit. In May, a Pakistani-American attempted to set off a car bomb in Times Square. In October, Al Qaeda in Yemen placed sophisticated bombs onto cargo and passenger planes before authorities prevented their explosion.

In response, the administration has doubled the size of the nation’s no-fly list. It has promised to better connect the dots to spot emerging terror threats. And it recently heightened security screenings at airports using new scanners and more invasive pat-downs.

“We are in much better position today than we were last year at this time,’’ Brennan said.

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