Here is American politics, 2013 edition: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper spent five minutes in a congressional hearing rebutting jokes from Comedy Central.
On Monday's Daily Show, Jon Stewart wrapped together the NSA spying scandal and Healthcare.gov failures in a segment called "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Him." The premise: President Obama is out of the loop on nearly everything in government. In fact, Stewart suggested, Obama wasn't the one calling the shots on surveillance. Instead, it's the nefarious-sounding "National Intelligence Priorities Framework."
[ABC News clip] An NSA spokeswoman said it takes orders from something called the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and not the President.
Stewart: What the fuck is this? [points to a sign that says NIPF] And did we find out about it because of some kind of "NIPF slip"? ...
But listen, if the President doesn't know what's going on, how does he run the country?
Correspondent Jessica Williams: Oh, Jon, no president's run the country since Kennedy. You heard what they say. Our spying operation is totally under the control of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework.
The two go back and forth, making jokes about the NIPF, which Stewart calls a "shadowy cadre."
Which is incorrect. It's not a "cadre," so much as a "spreadsheet" — but you don't have to take my word for it. During a hearing before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, prompted by committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, offered an explanation of how the intelligence-gathering system works.
This is a document, both a document and process, that has existed in its current form since about 2003. It started during the Bush administration. but in my time in intelligence, every administration has had some form of overarching intelligence requirements document.
So what the current version is called the NIPF, which is an amalgam of the government's intelligence both analysis and collection requirements. There is a fairly rigorous process in which the requirements of all the departments are gathered — Department of Defense, State, Treasury, et cetera — as well as those of the national security staff and, accordingly, the president's requirements are embedded in this document.
And so on. Snooooze. Needs more jokes, Clapper.
Clapper's office has a declassified document outlining how the NIPF works. It reads like an internal memo from a management company — which is largely appropriate, given that it is essentially a management system for a diverse group of government agencies. The document, like Clapper's testimony, is unexciting.
Mind you, Rogers and Clapper didn't explicitly say that the comments were in response to Stewart's (rather listless) jokes. The NIPF has been in the news with some regularity over the past few days, as debate rages over what and when the president knew about the tapping of German chancellor Angela Merkel's private phone line. Most of the mentions of the NIPF, however, came directly from NSA or congressional spokespeople. Only Stewart really necessitated further clarification.
Jon Stewart is an entertainer, making jokes — including, in the segment above, a poop joke — for the sake of yuks. But as has been regularly reported, young people see The Daily Show as a regular source of news. For viewers, the (erroneous) news from Monday night was: Obama lets some group called NIPF control intelligence gathering.
Whether or not it was Clapper's explicit goal, those viewers will have all of their misconceptions cleared up just as soon as they sit down to watch Tuesday's House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing. Which will certainly happen.