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."
Officials Seek to Assure Public Ahead of Holiday Travel
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."
On Christmas Day one year ago, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian-born, apparent al Qaeda operative, allegedly attempted to destroy a Northwest Airlines flight.
Abdulmutallab was able to board an aircraft with explosives concealed in his underwear, despite being on a terror watch list, and attempts by his father to alert U.S. officials that he was a danger. Only his fellow passengers were able to prevent him from detonating the device.
Officials say that a year later, new security measures would have prevented Abdulmutallab's attempted attack.
"We would prevent him from getting on that plane from Amsterdam to Detroit," said Napolitano. "That's more international protocols put in place ... new international aviation requirements."
"We identified deficiencies in the system," said Brennan. "We have learned lessons from these examples of attempted attacks. And we now, I think, are having a much stronger system as a result."
Terror Threats Averted in 2010
If 2010 passes without a successful terror attack on U.S. soil, it is certainly not for lack of attempts. From the failed Times Square bomb attempt to sting operations that snared alleged terrorists in Oregon and Maryland, there's mounting evidence of the danger posed by homegrown terror.
"Identifying so-called self-radicalization is unquestionably a tough problem," Clapper said. "We are in dialogue with the Muslim community. And that is going to be a source of advice, counsel, and wisdom, as well as hopefully alerting us to those among their number who are professing radical views."
While the Times Square bomb attempt and the Christmas Day plot were both extremely close calls, Brennan claimed that both scenarios actually showed strides on the part of U.S. officials in securing the country.
"Neither one of those attacks were successful," he said. "People may attribute it to luck, but I think it's because of the pressure that we as the U.S. government have put on the terrorist groups over the past decade."
Counterterror Advisors Say Perfection is Not Possible
The group did acknowledge that the U.S. still has plenty of work to do, particularly overseas where a radical message often takes root and terrorists can find sanctuary.
"Terrorists hide in certain places. They're operating and training in certain areas, and we need to continue to work with our foreign counterparts to make sure that they're doing their best to root these individuals out," he said. "We have to continue to adapt, continue to be flexible, and to continue anticipating what the terrorists are thinking themselves."
Sawyer asked about recent comments from Michael Leiter at the National Counterterrorism Agency, asserting that not all attacks can be stopped and some innocent lives will inevitably be lost.
"I think Mike Leiter was correct," Napolitano said. "You cannot hermetically seal the United States."
"We're not going to bat 1,000 necessarily. We can't guarantee that," said Clapper. "But we're certainly doing everything we can to ensure that we do thwart any kind of an attack."
"What I say to the American people is that ... thousands of people are working 24/7, 364 [sic] days a year to keep the American people safe," said Napolitano.
"There are evil people in the world who are trying to do us harm," said Brennan, "but this government has come an awfully long way."
Jake Tapper, Susie Banikarim, Margaret Aro and Rick Klein contributed this report.