WASHINGTON – As the White House sought to reassure Americans that it has fixed mistakes that nearly allowed al-Qaida to take down a U.S.-bound airliner last Christmas, it acknowledged Wednesday another security misstep: The nation's top intelligence official was out of the loop about a terrorist plot and numerous arrests this week in Britain.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appeared stumped Tuesday night when asked on ABC News whether a significant terror plot uncovered in London could have security implications in the United States. The plot received huge news coverage this week and was a major focus in the U.K., America's closest intelligence partner.
"London?" Clapper asked, looking across the table at Obama's homeland security adviser, John Brennan, who was also being interviewed.
Brennan sought to allay fears about a holiday season terrorist attack during a White House news conference Wednesday. Asked why Clapper was out of the loop on such a major incident, he said the director was preoccupied with tensions between North and South Korea and a tentative nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.
"Should he have been briefed by his staff on those arrests?" Brennan said. "Yes."
It was an embarrassing moment not just for Obama but for the embattled position of director of national intelligence. The job, created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, has failed to live up to its billing as a central, strong overseer of the nation's intelligence infrastructure. And it reinforced the impression by many in the intelligence community that Brennan functions as the de facto intelligence director.
Before his confirmation, one of the criticisms of Clapper was that he would not have the clout to take charge of the nation's far-flung intelligence network. With Brennan, a former CIA official, in the White House, and CIA Director Leon Panetta running the nation's spy agency, some lawmakers feared Clapper would be marginalized.
The gaffe also forced the White House off its message of reassurance to the American public. The past year has been the most challenging yet for Obama on the terrorism front. After the failed attack last Christmas, the administration has faced an attempted car bombing in Times Square, a nearly successful attack on U.S.-bound cargo planes and several nascent plots disrupted by the FBI.
Brennan said he was absolutely confident the mistakes that allowed a bomber to board a plane last Christmas have been fixed.
"We are in much better position today than we were last year at this time," Brennan said.
Security officials have been on edge for days because of an increase in intelligence "chatter" about a possible attack. Officials have said there is no specific, credible threat.