Intelligence Chief’s Histrionics Obscure Downgrade of Terrorist Threat

Lieutenant General James R. Clapper, Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, recently gave testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his annual assessment of the threats facing the United States. What little attention was paid by the media – always seeking drama and conflict to get more viewers and readers in order to increase advertising revenues – to the annual ritual focused on Clapper’s vitriolic attack on Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. Snowden believed NSA’s electronic snooping programs went too far and therefore gave a treasure trove of documents to media outlets about the snooping. Clapper accused him of doing grave damage to the nation’s security through such disclosures, because terrorist groups have allegedly changed their behavior to avoid U.S. spying.

The media also focused on the tension at the congressional hearing between Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Clapper over Clapper’s statement last year, under questioning by Wyden, that intelligence agencies weren’t collecting bulk information about Americans. In the carefully scripted kabuki dance that passes for intelligence oversight by Congress, Wyden had even told Clapper he was going to ask that question in open committee session, so Clapper’s resulting lie was not because he was caught off guard, as he later implied. This year, Wyden euphemistically termed Clapper’s prior dissembling to congressional overseers, doing at least something to uphold the Constitution’s system of checks and balances, as a crippling "culture of misinformation."

In fact, Clapper’s seething anger at Snowden is probably the result of Snowden’s disclosures, which made a monkey out of Clapper’s prior claim to the contrary by revealing NSA’s bulk unconstitutional collection of all Americans’ phone records. Of course, the arrogant intelligence chief has stated that he resented talking about classified issues in public, which matches the mentality of an intelligence community that regularly chafes under even the poorly enforced constitutional limits of the republic it is supposed to serve. So even though some of Clapper’s comments about Snowden’s giving too much away to foreign countries and terrorists might have some merit, the general’s own transgressions are far worse for a republic: lying to a congressional oversight panel in violation the Constitution’s system of checks and balances and his intelligence community’s blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s implied prohibition against general searches and its stated requirement that to spy on Americans, a judicially approved search warrant, based on probable cause that a crime has been committed, is needed.

In this year’s testimony, however, the real news was that Clapper undermined his own argument that Snowden’s alleged help to terrorist organizations was so horrific for the country; he did this by saying that international terrorism was only the fourth worst threat to the nation. That’s right, Clapper claimed that whistleblowing insiders, such as Snowden, and foreign intelligence services were bigger threats to the nation than were terrorists. And for the second year in a row, he cited cyber attacks by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea on US defense contractors, financial institutions, water utilities, and electrical grids as the number one threat. So after all the hysteria after the 9/11 attacks, drone wars in several developing countries, and two overseas quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, which allegedly attempted to "drain the swamp" of terrorists, the terrorist threat has been downgraded.

One could make the argument – and US security agencies do – that all of their martial efforts overseas have made Americans safer. In at least Iraq and Yemen (a major venue for the US drone war), hard data indicate that US military action has actually increased the numbers of Islamist terrorists. Data don’t lie, because what drives radical Islamists to attack the United States is unnecessary US meddling in Muslim countries – just look at the late Osama bin Laden’s writings. And since the chance that international terrorists will kill any American is about the same as an asteroid killing him or her (and the chance of succumbing to such a terrorist is less than being struck by lightning), the US government has long overinvested in the military means to fight terrorists.

Yet despite that overinvestment, terrorism as a threat does not justify the mammoth defense expenditures the US makes without a great power enemy to fight (the United States currently expends on defense what the next 11 countries similarly spend combined). So a cynic – that is, a person thoroughly familiar with how defense programs are created and sustained but with no vested interest in them – might say that countering the cyberwarfare threat from great powers would bring defense contractors more profits than systems to counter rag tag, and often incompetent, terrorist groups. Just a thought.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.