March 10, 2011

In defense of Director of National Intelligence Clapper

Director of National Intelligence retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Jim Clapper is being criticized for his analysis at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10. He described, correctly in the context of his statements, China and Russia as "mortal threats" to the United States.

Several Senators expressed concern that General Clapper did not cite either Iran or North Korea as "mortal threats." Given the general's long background - almost five decades - in the intelligence community, his remarks are understandable. Russia and China possess the capability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons. As he also stated, there currently does not appear to be any intent on behalf of either nation to exercise that capability against the United States.

Intelligence analysts deal with two factors: capability and intent. Clapper addressed both, accurately in my opinion. Both nations have the capability to pose a "mortal threat," but there is no indications of hostile intent at this time. Conversely, Iran and North Korea, with limited capabilities, may pose a threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East and East Asia respectively, but neither country's capability rise to the level of a mortal threat to this country, regardless of their hostile intent. Israeli analysts have described Iran in different terms, however, labeling the Persian Gulf power an "existential threat" to the State of Israel. We are not Israel, we are not within range of Iranian missiles (yet).

It was after Clapper offered his analysis on the situation in Libya that some Senators called for his resignation. I am not sure why - perhaps his analysis was not what they wanted to hear. In defense of Jim Clapper, what he said was entirely accurate. Clapper's assessment is not what the President wishes the situation to be, it is the situation as it is on the ground. None of the Senators has the military or intelligence background to challenge that assessment.

Before I continue, a disclaimer. Jim Clapper is both a professional colleague and a personal friend. I have worked for the general on several occasions, and have participated in professional fora with him. His experience is broad and his accomplishments are many.

Let's take a look at General Clapper's assessment of the Libyan situation. You can watch the general's remarks here.

CLAPPER: So, I just think from a standpoint of attrition —


GEN. CLAPPER: — that over time, I mean — this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term that the regime will prevail.

The general is absolutely correct. No military analyst worthy of the title will tell you differently. In the absence of external support, Libyan military forces loyal to Mu'amar al-Qadhafi will defeat the rebels. The Libyan leader has shown no reticence, reluctance or remorse to use air power, armor and artillery against the opposition forces. The ruthless application of orchestrated military power against poorly armed and untrained rebels, regardless of their commitment and fervor, will ultimately prevail. General Clapper's assessment is accurate; I said the same thing a few days earlier. (See my article, Libya: No Fly Zone or Qadhafi.)

In response to calls from Senator Lindsey Graham for Clapper's resignation, the White House tried to rehabilitate Clapper's analysis. They should not have done so - Clapper was right. Senator Graham should stick to that part of the military he understands, that of the judge advocate general corps, basically the lawyers. We need good military lawyers and we appreciate his service, but before he criticizes General Clapper, he might want to learn something of desert warfare, air power, insurgencies and the Libyan armed forces.

Just because President Obama has called for al-Qadhafi's removal, words will not make it so. In the absence of external support, such as the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country, General Clapper's assessment that the al-Qadhafi regime will prevail is spot on.