After initially suggesting that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s inability to answer a question from ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer about the arrests of 12 suspected terrorists in London was because her question was too “ambiguous,” the Obama administration acknowledged Wednesday morning that retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Clapper had not been briefed about the arrests at the time of the interview.
“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.
Clapper, she explained, had been “working throughout the day on important intelligence matters, including monitoring military and political developments on the Korean Peninsula, providing answers to questions concerning the ratification of the START nuclear treaty, and other classified issues. He 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. Nevertheless, he should have been briefed on the arrests, and steps have been taken to ensure that he is in the future. The intelligence community as a whole was fully aware of this development and tracking it closely.”
Asked about Clapper not having been briefed on the arrests, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said "Jim Clapper is, I think, the consummate DNI. He was working on developments in the Korean Peninsula, in terms of political/military developments. He was focused on trying to provide support to the Congress as far as the START treaty deliberations were concerned. He was engaged in a variety of classified matters."
Brennan continued: "Should he have been briefed by his staff on those arrests? Yes. And I know there was breathless attention by the media about these arrests, and it was constantly on the news networks. I'm glad that Jim Clapper is not sitting in front of the TV 24 hours a day and monitoring what's coming out of the media. What he is doing is focusing on those intelligence issues that the president expects him to focus on and to make sure that we don't have conflict in different parts of the world."
In Sawyer's interview with Clapper, Brennan, and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Sawyer asked about arrests of 12 suspected terrorists in London earlier that day.
The interview took place at 3:45 pm EST Monday; the arrests had taken place in the early morning in the US and had been covered on all the morning shows.
"First of all, London," Sawyer said. "How serious is it? Any implication that it was coming here?"
Clapper hesitated, not seeming to know what she was talking about, though the arrests had occurred literally hours before, with much media coverage of them. He looked to Brennan, who tried to explain.
“You meant the arrests of the 12 individuals by the British early this morning,” Brennan said to Sawyer. “This is something that the British told us about early this morning when it was taking place.”
Later in the interview, Sawyer told Clapper, "I was a little surprised you didn't know about London.”
"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't," he said.
Brennan tried to help his colleague, telling Sawyer “you referenced London but you didn’t talk about the arrests.”
A DNI spokesperson later blamed Sawyer, saying her “question about this specific news development was ambiguous. The DNI's knowledge of the threat streams in Europe is profound and multi-dimensional, and any suggestion otherwise is inaccurate."
But that tune changed as of Wednesday morning.