“When In Doubt, Blame the Intelligence Community”

"Politicians need to understand that as dedicated and talented as the U.S. intelligence community is, mistakes will inevitably be made in the process." 

Did the president of the United States blame the U.S. intelligence community for failing to keep him and his national-security advisers informed about the growing strength and rising danger posed by the terrorist group known as the Islamic State? That was the line of questioning that a number of reporters at the White House—including ABC’s Jonathan Karl, CNN’s Jim Acosta and Fox News’ Ed Henry—were pursuing during last Monday’s daily briefing.

The context for all of this, of course, involves President Obama’s exclusive interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes. In response to a question from 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft as to whether the United States was surprised about the Islamic State controlling so much territory in Iraq and Syria, President Obama referred to the words of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, instead of answering the question himself.

“Well I think, our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that,” Obama said. “I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”

To administration officials, like Press Secretary Josh Earnest, this was merely an attempt by the president to reiterate what Director Clapper himself said during a sit-down with David Ignatius of the Washington Post—nothing more, and nothing less. Earnest tried to smooth things over in the White House briefing room by stating unequivocally that “the president continues to have the highest degree of confidence in our intelligence community,” and he seemed to imply that even the best intelligence analyst in the world would find it difficult to assess the “speed and pace” that the Islamic State has exhibited in Iraq and Syria over the past two months.

A lot of people in Washington, however, weren’t buying that explanation. Eli Lake, senior national-security correspondent for the Daily Beast, ran an article immediately after President Obama’s interview about the multiple warnings the administration received from senior intelligence officials about the Islamic State’s expansion—Jim Clapper, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn, Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan and Brett McGurk (the State Department’s lead on Iraq) all included. “Either the president doesn’t read the intelligence he’s getting,” an anonymous source told Lake, “or he’s bullsh*tting.”

Republican lawmakers, like Speaker John Boehner, accused President Obama of trying to fault others for the ascendance of the one of the richest terrorist groups in contemporary history. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers seconded those comments and stood up for the intelligence community, arguing that analysts across the U.S. Government were warning about the Islamic State for over a year.

So is President Obama in fact trying to sidestep blame? And perhaps worse, is he diverting the blame onto the CIA, DNI and Pentagon in order to escape the embarrassment of being caught flat-footed on the top national-security issue of the day?

Well, if he has, President Obama would not be the first Commander-in-Chief to do so. President George W. Bush’s administration—often through senior officials like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice—was just as likely to ditch the whole “compassionate conservative” mantra when embarrassing policy failures had the potential of hurting the White House at the polls. Whether the subject included the inability to prevent the September 11 terrorist attacks (despite warnings from the intelligence community) or the terrible fiasco revolving around the absence of Iraq’s WMD’s, Bush’s advisers often opted for the familiar Washington parlor game of “pass the buck”—especially if it was an election year.

Putting the fault on the intelligence community is an easy thing for policy makers and politicians to do—not only does it absolve them of any responsibility when a mistake is made, but it also pins criticism on intelligence professionals who are not likely to fight those accusations on the record (anonymous sources are a different story entirely). The perfect illustration of this phenomenon can be found two months after U.S. forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. When it turned out that Saddam did not in fact purchase uranium from Niger—otherwise referred to as the “sixteen words” in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address—President Bush batted away the mishap by essentially calling out “the intelligence services” for including a piece of information that was erroneous and passed on by an unreliable source known for forgery. Put on the spot, CIA Director George Tenet acted like a good soldier and expressed that he and his agency alone were at fault.