President Obama’s selection of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. to serve as the Director of National Intelligence is already drawing fire from a variety of quarters. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was forced to defend Clapper on Sunday against charges that he has failed to keep Congress sufficiently informed on intelligence matters in his present position as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.
A more serious issue, however, may prove to be Clapper’s support in 2003 for the idea that Iraqi WMD had been smuggled into Syria just before the US invasion as part of an attempt to destroy evidence.
According to the New York Times, Clapper, who was then head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, “said satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material ‘unquestionably’ had been moved out of Iraq.”
Clapper made his remarks to reporters on October 28, 2003, one week after the publication of Seymour Hersh’s article, “The Stovepipe,” which examined “the disparity between the Bush AdministrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prewar assessment of IraqÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s weapons of mass destruction and what has actually been discovered.”
That article had reignited the debate over the failures of prewar intelligence, and the Bush administration had already begun stonewalling against pressure from the Senate Intelligence Committee to comply with its requests for documents and witnesses.
The Associated Press made note of Clapper’s 2003 remarks in a May 21 article focusing on him as the most likely choice for the DNA position. It was only after Clapper’s nomination was announced, however, that bloggers on both the left and the right jumped on the incident.
Digby, for example, quoted the New York Times story with Clapper’s name left out, then asked rhetorically, “That’s obviously some neocon nutcase who was completely discredited for those ludicrous remarks, which even people at the time thought were bizarre and unbelievable, and which turned out to [be] total nonsense, right?”
“Sadly, no,” she went on. “This is the fellow President Obama has chosen to head up the Director of National Security, General Clapper. Yes, that’s right. That person, who is either a fantacist or an unrepentant propagandist, is going to oversee all the intelligence activities for the United States. If we have another terrorist attack, prepare to invade Finland.”
Meanwhile, Ed Morrissey at Hot Air was raising the same question, noting that “Washington Times reporter Eli Lake did a little research on Barack ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s choice for the thankless position (Clapper would be the fourth DNI in five years) and discovered a nugget that comes straight out of the so-called neocon argument for war against Saddam Hussein.”
The idea that Iraq had WMD which were smuggled out of the country has been widely regarded as a fringe position. As late as 2006, Eli Lake reported for the New York Sun on attempts by Rep. Pete Hoekstra, then the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to find new evidence for the claim, but such evidence never materialized.
Now even Hoekstra has announced that he will oppose Clapper’s nomination on the grounds that he “does not have the clout or independence to be the voice that provides an alternative to the Obama administration’s prosecute after-the-fact approach to terror.”