WASHINGTON — As the director of national intelligence, James Clapper has told Congress that the regime of Moammar Gadhafi would likely prevail in Libya, that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood party was "largely secular" and that the National Security Agency doesn't collect data on millions of Americans.
Gadhafi ended up killed by Libyan rebel forces — though U.N. and U.S. intervention was key to that — and the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi quickly moved to install conservative Islamists into top positions when he became Egypt's president. And Clapper's latest misstep may have dented trust in the chief intelligence officer despite public assurances of support from the White House and key members of Congress.
Clapper acknowledged he misspoke when he told the Senate Intelligence Committee in March that U.S. spies do not gather data on Americans — something NSA leaker Edward Snowden revealed as false by releasing documents showing the NSA collects millions of Americans' phone records showing who they called and for how long, as well as some Internet traffic.
"Clapper is probably job secure for now because (Capitol) Hill is not calling for his removal," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and adviser to the Obama White House who heads the Brookings Intelligence Project research group. "But he now has an unfortunate record. Another misstatement, and he will be a liability."
The intelligence director's staying power shows the Obama administration's reluctance to unseat the nation's top spy while the intelligence community is dealing with the fallout of what Snowden, a former NSA systems analyst, has disclosed and what he might still reveal. Asking Clapper to step down would also elevate Snowden by highlighting his claim that senior U.S. officials were lying to Congress about the nature and extent of NSA surveillance programs.
Snowden's revelations have exposed a level of domestic spying that most Americans were unaware of, prompting a national debate over privacy. He is still believed to be stranded at a Moscow airport.
U.S. intelligence officials have said they are trying to determine how Snowden, who had wide access to the NSA's computer networks — was able to carry out the classified material he has leaked to the media. No one in the intelligence community has yet been revealed to be disciplined over the possible security lapse that allowed the former government contractor to gather so much material undetected, though a criminal investigation has been launched into the company that did his background check.
"The president has full confidence in Director Clapper and his leadership of the intelligence community," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, echoing a statement by White House spokesman Jay Carney in 2011, when the intelligence chief was facing calls for his resignation over comments on Libya.
That time, the call came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. This time, Graham's office offered no comment, and the only lawmaker spearheading a call for Clapper to step down has been Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich. His spokesman, Will Adams, said Amash is gathering signatures for a letter he intends to send to the White House demanding Clapper's departure.
"DNI Clapper explained his response ... and apologized for the misunderstanding," Clapper spokesman Shawn Turner said.
Clapper's predecessor, Dennis Blair, also ended up in trouble over his remarks. He embarrassed the White House by revealing in open testimony that the government's elite interrogation team, the High-Value Interrogation Group, had not been officially deployed to question the 2009 Christmas Day bomber. He also told Congress that the suspected bomber continued to provide helpful information to investigators at a time when authorities had hoped to keep his cooperation a secret.
Blair was also the first Obama administration official to describe the deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, as an act of homegrown terrorism, getting ahead of the White House, which had been slow to link the killings publicly to Islamic militancy.
The Bush administration's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, also made missteps in public, once divulging the cancellation of a highly classified, multibillion-dollar satellite program. And he spilled classified details about how the surveillance act works to a newspaper.
Clapper's apology over his misleading remarks came in a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., dated June 21 but released just before the July Fourth holiday.
Clapper called his comments at a hearing in March "clearly erroneous." He'd been asked by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, if the NSA gathered "any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans."
At first, Clapper answered definitively: "No."
Pressed by Wyden, Clapper changed his answer. "Not wittingly," he said. "There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly."
Clapper in June called those statements "the least untruthful" thing he could think of to say in an open, unclassified hearing. In his apology letter, he said was thinking about whether the NSA gathered the content of emails, rather than just the record of calls to and from U.S. citizens and the length of those phone calls. In the letter, Clapper said he could now publicly correct the record because the existence of the metadata collection program has been declassified since the deluge of leaks from Snowden.
Wyden, and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said Clapper should have corrected the record sooner, but they stopped well short of asking him to step down.
Feinstein said in a statement last week: "I have received Director Clapper's letter and believe it speaks for itself. I have no further comment at this time." Her office declined requests to comment for this article, as did the vice chair, Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.
The leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and the committee's top Democrat, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, also declined to comment.
"This administration views Snowden as the problem, not Gen. Clapper," House Intelligence Committee member Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said of Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general. "He is generally a very straight shooter. I think people are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn't trying to mislead the Senate."
It's Clapper's bluntness — in closed hearings, away from the cameras — that will likely be his saving grace, according to former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican.
"I never found him to parse his words or answers," Hoekstra said. "You might not agree with him, and you could have a very spirited argument with him. He wouldn't try to hide it. And that's a good thing."