Director of National Intelligence James Clapper seems to be the least-wanted guest at the government's party. Lots of people, including the host, wish he'd leave, but no one's willing to ask him to go.
Clapper is one half of the duo that acts as the face of the government's secret surveillance infrastructure. The other is NSA chief Keith Alexander, who plans to step down from his position next spring. The two have repeatedly appeared before congressional committees to defend the spy programs revealed by the leaks from Edward Snowden, generally facing a better reception on Capitol Hill than off. Earlier this month, a poll conducted by the Huffington Post indicated that a majority of Americans think the NSA hasn't had sufficient oversight as it crafts its surveillance tools.
It's President Obama who has borne the brunt of complaints about the surveillance systems. In August, he presented modest reforms to the systems. As more revelations have leaked in the interim, the administration continues to have to tamp down outcry. From the United Arab Emirates on Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry argued that the surveillance systems targeting American allies pre-date the Obama administration, a clear effort to separate the president from the blowback.
Buried in an article in The New York Times was this paragraph, suggesting that the administration is trying to give Clapper, who served as undersecretary of the DNI under Bush, a hint that his time in Washington is nearing its end.
[E]ven some of President Obama’s advisers have begun questioning the judgment of the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper Jr., who is supposed to review the costs and benefits of these operations, and some officials, saying they are speaking for themselves, have suggested he should leave around the time General Alexander does.
"The only way the president is going to get a fresh start with the allies," one of his advisers said last week, "is to present them with a new team."
This is the administrative equivalent of standing behind someone and saying "leave" as you fake a cough, but it still sends a message.
Sen. John McCain was more direct in an interview with Der Spiegel — if only for a minute. That interview focused on questions addressing a range of issues. But the one that caught people's eye was this one:
SPIEGEL: Who must be held accountable?
McCain: The head of the NSA, the president of the United States, the Congressional Intelligence Committees, all of these contractors we pay that were responsible for performing the background checks. There should be a wholesale housecleaning.
SPIEGEL: Should Keith Alexander, head of the NSA, resign?
McCain: Of course, they should resign or be fired. We no longer hold anybody accountable in Washington. The Commandant of the Marine Corps fired a couple of generals because of failure of security at a base in Afghanistan. Tell me who has been fired for anything that's gone bad in this town.
In short order, McCain stepped back from that position, as reported by Politico. "Senator McCain believes that there needs to be accountability for the Snowden leaks, but he is not calling for the resignation of General Alexander, who is retiring soon," a McCain spokesman told the site. To which Der Spiegel replied that the interview was "approved by McCain's staff in the exact version that was published, word for word."
It seems very possible that McCain, not known for his even keel, expressed a stronger opinion than he feels in service to a larger point. Of course, his spokesperson didn't clarify who the "they" in McCain's comment referred to, and only mentioned Alexander by name.
Mr. Clapper, if you're reading this: We think maybe they want you to go. We hate to have to be the ones to tell you, but it is what it is. If you have any trouble finding your coat, we're sure someone will send it to your forwarding address.