By Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A04
In the summer of 2004, as Congress was debating the creation of a spymaster-in-chief, James R. Clapper Jr., then head of a major military intelligence agency, argued forcefully at a lunch with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the Pentagon's four largest intelligence agencies ought to report to the new office.
Rumsfeld, according to former administration officials familiar with the incident, threw down his fork. He wanted to know how Clapper and Michael V. Hayden, then director of the National Security Agency, could support such an idea.
Rumsfeld's anger reflects the challenges entailed in centralizing authority over the intelligence community, which is divided among several large bureaucracies with leaders intent on keeping their authority intact.
Three years after the lunch in Rumsfeld's office, Clapper, a lanky retired Air Force general with a shaved head and silvery goatee, was installed as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, with control over the agencies that he had argued to Rumsfeld ought to be under the new director of national intelligence, or DNI.
Clapper, who has spent more than 45 years in intelligence work, is the leading candidate to become the next DNI.
The extent of the authorities the next occupant of the post will wield is a significant issue for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which will hold the confirmation hearing. "The committee has generally taken the position that the DNI needs to be a strong position, filled with a strong person," a congressional aide said.
Some question whether Clapper would want a job that is widely regarded as lacking sufficient authority to coordinate 16 intelligence agencies, ranging from the CIA and NSA to the FBI and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Clapper's former agency. DNI Dennis C. Blair, who announced Thursday that he was resigning, struggled to fully assume the role of the president's chief intelligence adviser.
Hayden said that if Clapper, 69, were the nominee, he would urge him to secure President Obama's commitment that he is the go-to guy on intelligence. "He has got to believe that the president believes he is senior intelligence adviser," Hayden said.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the intelligence committee's ranking Republican, said he does not think Clapper is "the right one" for the job. "I believe you need somebody who will work more with the nonmilitary intelligence agencies," he said.
According to former intelligence officials, Clapper worked well with Hayden, who was CIA director from 2006 to 2009, and Mike McConnell, who was DNI in the last two years of the George W. Bush administration. Clapper agreed to report to the DNI as well as to the defense secretary, Robert M. Gates.
Clapper has been a calming presence during his three-year tenure as undersecretary of defense, following the turbulence of Rumsfeld's tenure. Rumsfeld drew the ire of many in the intelligence community by pushing the Pentagon to expand its intelligence collection efforts. By contrast, Clapper and Gates have worked hard to build a more collegial relationship with the rest of the intelligence establishment.
"He's very conventional in his approach to intelligence systems," said a senior military official who has worked with Clapper. "He takes a very traditional intelligence perspective."
Some wonder whether Clapper has the right instincts for the job. "He isn't a big fan of organizational politics," said one former colleague. "He's not a knife fighter, and that's probably what they'd need from a DNI perspective."
Early on in his current position, he dismantled an anti-terrorism database that civil liberties advocates had criticized for gathering information about antiwar groups and activists. He also pushed to end a controversial intelligence program to gather information on terrorist groups in the United States.
Clapper led efforts championed by Gates to increase the number of unmanned surveillance planes in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years and has more than tripled since 2007 the number of drones flying at any one time.
Even military officials who butted heads with Clapper over weapons programs said that he was willing to listen. "He's an amiable individual," one military officer said. "He's someone you can deal with and has brought a lot of stability to the position."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.