James R. Clapper, Jr.
Ann Heisenfelt  /  AP
James R. Clapper, Jr., Director of National Intelligence, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services committee hearing on current and future worldwide threats to the national security of the United States.
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updated 3/11/2011 9:17:39 AM ET 2011-03-11T14:17:39

The government's top intelligence official fumbled the Obama administration's message Thursday about embattled Moammar Gadhafi's fate, telling Congress that the Libyan leader will prevail in his fight with rebel forces there.

It was the latest in a series of public gaffes for James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Hours later, the White House distanced President Barack Obama from Clapper's remarks. Obama does not think Gadhafi will prevail, a senior administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama's position on Clapper's comments. The official reiterated Obama's stand that Gadhafi has lost legitimacy and should leave power.

Video: U.S. treading lightly with Libya (on this page)
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Speaking to senators, Clapper said the Libyan government's military might was stronger than had been described. Clapper said there was no indication that Gadhafi will step down and offer a speedy resolution to the crisis.

"I just think from a standpoint of attrition, that over time, I mean — this is kind of a stalemate back and forth, but I think over the longer term that the (Gadhafi) regime will prevail," Clapper said.

Call for Clapper to step down
One senator, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, quickly urged Clapper to resign.

Video: Libyan oil port forms front line of battle (on this page)

"Unfortunately, this isn't the first questionable comment from the DNI director," Graham said. "However it should be the final straw."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Clapper has the full confidence of the president. Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, later said the president was happy with Clapper's performance.

Donilon, however, walked back Clapper's comments slightly.

"Things in the Middle East right now, and things in Libya in particular right now, need to be looked at not through a static but through a dynamic ... lens," Donilon told reporters. "And if you look at it that way, beyond a narrow view on just kind of numbers of weapons and things that, you get a very different picture."

Clapper wasn't divulging classified information when he was describing the situation in Libya. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., agreed with Clapper's assessment.

Graham acknowledged that some of Clapper's analysis could be accurate, but he said those remarks should be spoken behind closed doors.

John Pike, and analyst with Globalsecurity.org, said Clapper was doing what intelligence officials should do: give the best intelligence available. Sometimes that's politically inconvenient, Pike said.

"I don't need a director of national intelligence to tell me what I want to hear," Pike said. "I know what I want to hear."

Prior gaffes
Earlier this year, Clapper said the Muslim Brotherhood was "largely secular," which his office later clarified by saying the group in Egypt tries to work through the political system.

In December, Clapper was in the dark during an interview on national television when he was asked about a terror plot that had been disrupted in England and had received wide media attention. The White House defended him then too, saying Clapper had been preoccupied with tensions between North and South Korea and with helping ensure the passage of a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia.

Clapper is not the first director of national intelligence to find himself in hot water.

Clapper's predecessor, Dennis Blair, told Congress that the government's elite interrogation team, its High-Value Interrogation Group, had not been officially deployed to question the 2009 Christmas Day bomber.

Blair 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. The Obama administration was slow to publicly link the murders to radical Islamic extremism.

The Bush administration's director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, made his share of flubs too.

McConnell once divulged the cancellation of a highly classified, multibillion-dollar satellite program. He wrote an opinion piece that left the impression that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act had not been updated since 1978, when the law has been updated dozens of times since its passage. And he spilled classified details about how the surveillance act works to a newspaper.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: U.S. treading lightly with Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: U.S. treading lightly with Libya

    >>> with a great deal at stake here, the united states continues to tread lightly on what to do about libya, and the director of national intelligence suggested today gadhafi may ultimately prevail in this one. very difficult to know what's really going on behind the scenes these days. an explanation tonight from our chief foreign affairs correspondent, andrea mitchell in our d.c. newsroom. andrea, good evening.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the administration tried to speak with one voice today, but as you point out the nation's top spy said without foreign intervention -- defense secretary gates raised serious concerns about whether a no-fly zone with work. in washington secretary of state clinton agreed, the u.s. should not go it alone.

    >> it's easy for people to say do this, do that and then they turn and say, okay, u.s., go do it. you use your assets.

    >> reporter: even as the administration claims that its sanctions are squeezing gadhafi , national intelligence director general clapper told congress that gadhafi will prevail. tonight a senior official said that the president does not believe gadhafi will prevail. tomorrow the president will have to try to explain that at a news conference, try to address those differences. brian.

    >> andrea mitchell from d.c. tonight.

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