When Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., asked James Clapper if he believes the Muslim Brotherhood poses a threat to America, the director of national intelligence offered a puzzling response: "In the case of Egypt, it is a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al-Qaeda as a perversion of Islam."
Clapper's description of the Muslim group as a secular organization confounded Myrick. "Let's be clear-the Muslim Brotherhood is NOT secular," the congresswoman said after the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. "The administration is playing with fire."
Discerning the identity of the Muslim Brotherhood comes at a crucial moment: With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation on Friday, many worry that the Muslim Brotherhood-the best-organized political opposition group in Egypt-could make gains during parliamentary or presidential elections. That could mean trouble from an organization that has ties to terrorist groups and defends "martyrdom" bombings in Israel and Iraq.
By Thursday afternoon, intelligence officials were backtracking from Clapper's comments. Spokesman Jamie Smith said the intelligence director meant that the Muslim Brotherhood makes efforts to work under a political system that was largely secular under Mubarak: "He is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a secular organization."
FBI Director Robert Mueller-who testified after Clapper-also tried to clarify the government's understanding: "I can say at the outset, obviously elements of the Muslim Brotherhood here and overseas have supported terrorism."
If Clapper misspoke, the error comes from a top official at a time when clarity is crucial: What the administration communicates about its understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood could influence how far the group is willing to go in Egypt's new political process. A perception of harmlessness could embolden their efforts to gain power in a country that has outlawed their participation in politics for years.