Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was caught off guard Monday by a question on the widely-covered arrest of 12 men in an alleged terror plot in London. Today, Clapper's spokeswoman admits that it was because he had not been briefed on the arrests.
In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, taped Monday afternoon, Clapper was asked about the arrests, which had happened hours before and were featured on all of the network morning news broadcasts. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, who were also participating in the joint interview, were aware of the arrests.
"First of all, London," Sawyer began. "How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here? ... Director Clapper?"
"London?" Clapper said after a pause, before Brennan entered the conversation explaining the arrests.
Later in the interview, Sawyer returned to the subject.
"I was a little surprised you didn't know about London," Sawyer told Clapper.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't," he replied.
Yesterday, Clapper's office had declined to say whether he knew about the specific disrupted plot but issued a statement calling Sawyer's question "ambiguous." Today, his office appears to have changed their position.
"Director Clapper had not yet been briefed on the arrests in the United Kingdom at the time of this interview taping," said ODNI spokeswoman Jamie Smith in a statement to ABC's Jake Tapper.
Smith explained that Clapper had been working on other matters during the day, following developments on the Korean Peninsula and issues surrounding the ratification of the START nuclear pact. He was not briefed on the London arrests, she said, because it was not centered in the homeland and required no action on his part.
Still, Smith acknowledged, that Clapper "should have been briefed on the arrests, and steps have been taken to ensure that he is in the future."
In an on-camera briefing at the White House today, Brennan strongly defended Clapper, calling him a "consummate" DNI.
"Should he have been briefed by his staff on these arrests? Yes," Brennan said before criticizing the media for what he called "breathless" coverage of the British arrests.
"I'm glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what's coming out in the media," Brennan said. "As of that time, there was nothing that the DNI needed to do or to be engaged in that would have required him to set aside other pressing intelligence matters to be briefed on things that were being put out in the press."
With the busy holiday travel season already in motion, the nation's top counterterror officials are seeking to assure the public of their efforts to safeguard the homeland even as they acknowledge real dangers.
In a wide-ranging interview, Clapper Brennan, and Napolitano said that though they know of no specific, credible threat against the U.S. at this time, there are plenty of warning signs to keep them on alert.
"There is a lot of chatter in the intel world ... that references the holidays," said Napolitano. "We know that things have already happened in Europe, and we're watching that very closely as well. But yes, there is increased chatter in the system. And there are increased efforts undertaken now by ... homeland security."