March 10, 2011 -- The nation's top intelligence officer has created another stir with comments today that Russia and China pose the greatest mortal threat to the United States.
Controversy is nothing new to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who has drawn past criticism for the lack of awareness of terror arrests in Britain and his characterization of the Muslim Brotherhood as a secular organization.
During an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on worldwide threats, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., asked Clapper which country posed the greatest threat to the United States.
"Certainly, the Russians still have a very formidable nuclear arsenal, which does pose potentially a mortal threat to us," Clapper said. "I don't think they have the intent to do that."
He added that China "is growing in its military capabilities. It has a full array of, whether conventional or strategic forces, that they are building. So they too do pose, potentially from a capabilities standpoint, a threat to us as a mortal threat."
He said the issue for the intelligence community is gauging intent versus capability, but, "having said all that, my greatest concern does not lie with a nation-state posing a threat to the United States as in the area of terrorism."
Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told Clapper he was surprised by his answer that Russia and China posed the greatest mortal threat and gave him an opportunity to clarify whether Iran or North Korea might be more of a threat.
Clapper said he based his assessment strictly on the strategic nuclear capabilities of nation-states that have the potential to be mortal dangers to the U.S. and, "the two that come to mind because of their capabilities are Russia and China."
Though Iran and North Korea were "of great concern," he said, they do not pose a threat to the continental United States.
Manchin rephrased his question to ask which country had the intent to be our greatest adversary.
Clapper replied, "Probably China."
Levin said he was as surprised by that answer as Clapper's first response.
Clapper said he came to his conclusion because there is a strategic nuclear reduction agreement between the U.S. and Russia, while none exists with China.
Levin said he was as surprised by that answer as much as he was by Clapper's initial comments.
"I don't think either country today has the intent to mortally attack us," Clapper said.
However, he added, speaking only of the capabilities of nation-states the U.S. is Russia's and China's greatest threat.
After the hearing, Levin issued a statement saying, "I was taken aback by Director Clapper's statement about China and Russia and, frankly, I was surprised by how long it took him to correct the impression that he created. He did finally correct it, however, and I am glad that he did, and I am satisfied with his correction."
Clapper's first misstep was in December, when ABC's Diane Sawyer interviewed him along with White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The interview was conducted hours after the arrests in the United Kingdom of several British men suspected of planning terror attacks in London.
Asked for his take on the arrests, Clapper seemed stumped by Sawyer's question of how serious the events in London might be.
"London?" he replied quizzically.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan then stepped in to answer the question, noting that British authorities had informed the United States about the arrests earlier in the day.
Later, Sawyer told Clapper she was surprised, "You didn't know about London."
Clapper replied, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't. "
In a White House briefing two days later, Brennan told reporters that Clapper was unaware of the news because he was focused on other issues at the time. He said corrective steps had been taken to ensure that he is briefed on similar events in the future so "if that happens again, I'm sure that he is going to be au courant as far as a takedown overseas."
Clapper had another eyebrow-raising moment in February at a congressional hearing, where he described the Muslim Brotherhood as a "largely secular" organization.
At the time, the popular revolution in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak was at its height and there was speculation about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the uprising.
A statement on behalf of Clapper later clarified his remarks: "In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work through a political system that has been, under Mubarak's rule, one that is largely secular in its orientation. He is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."