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President Obama rethinking his pick for director of national intelligence

By Walter Pincus and Anne E. Kornblut
Thursday, May 27, 2010; A06

After forcing out his director of national intelligence last week, President Obama is reevaluating the man who had been described as a leading contender for the job, with senior administration officials saying the process of finding a new intelligence chief could take longer than they had intended.

James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force lieutenant general serving as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, had been described as the top candidate for the DNI job, according to officials familiar with the selection process.

But administration officials have grown uneasy with choosing a military figure after the resignation of Adm. Dennis C. Blair, several people familiar with the selection process said Wednesday. One senior administration official said that Clapper is "still a candidate" and "still a possibility" but declined to call him the front-runner, as officials had done just days before.

White House officials floated Clapper's name "as a trial balloon," one intelligence official said, and were "hopeful" that the nomination would be well received. But in the face of objections from important lawmakers, including the leaders of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the administration is considering other options more actively, the intelligence official said.

"Nobody who knows this stuff wants this job," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive deliberations.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, who is favored by key lawmakers and some at the White House, has said he is not interested in the position. He had turned it down once before. "Panetta has the job he wants, he finds it exceptionally rewarding, and he's happy where he is. He's made that clear," said a person familiar with his thinking.

Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who previously declined the post, was also approached recently and reiterated that he is not interested.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), the top lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee, have made it clear that they want a civilian in the job. Bond, in an interview Wednesday, said he worried that Clapper would not have the internal clout to make the job as prominent as it was intended to be. "You've got to give it to somebody who won't be sidelined by the White House," Bond said.

Similarly, Feinstein expressed doubts.

"I have concerns about Clapper as a choice," she told ForeignPolicy.com. "The best thing for intelligence is to have a civilian in charge."

Obama has struggled from the beginning of his administration to find the right person for the job. The 2004 legislation that created the DNI does not clearly define what authority the office has, beyond stipulating that whoever holds it is the head of the 16-member intelligence community and the president's chief adviser on intelligence. Blair was the third appointee in five years.

"The president needs to decide what he wants the DNI to be," Feinstein said Monday, "and then work with the intelligence committees to see that the necessary authority is, in fact, in law."

Obama asked his new Intelligence Advisory Board in December to reexamine the DNI statute. The board's response, according to sources, was that changing the law would be too difficult and that Obama should find a candidate who could get along not only with the defense secretary, who controls a good portion of the overall intelligence budget, but also with the chiefs of key Pentagon-based intelligence agencies. That person also would need to have a rapport with the directors of the CIA and FBI.

Blair got along with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who as a former CIA director understands the complex issues facing the DNI. But he ran into trouble with Panetta, setting off turf fights that played a role in the White House's decision to seek a new director.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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