Senators question Obama's choice of Clapper as national intelligence director

Retired Air Force Gen. James R. Clapper would fill post vacated by retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair.
Retired Air Force Gen. James R. Clapper would fill post vacated by retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair. (J. Scott Applewhite - AP)
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By Anne E. Kornblut and Greg Miller
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 5, 2010

President Obama plans to nominate retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. as his next director of national intelligence, officials said Friday. The announcement is expected to come during a Rose Garden event on Saturday.

Clapper emerged as the front-runner immediately after the last director, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, stepped aside last month following a rocky tenure. Some lawmakers, though, have expressed resistance to the selection of another intelligence chief with a military background.

As news of Clapper's nomination broke on Friday, the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee said he was "not inclined to support" the nominee.

"Unfortunately, with his pick in Jim Clapper as the next DNI, the president has ensured our terror-fighting strategy will continue to be run out of the Department of Justice and White House," Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said. "While Jim has served our nation well, he lacks the necessary clout with the president, has proven to be less than forthcoming with Congress and has recently blocked our efforts to empower the DNI."

If confirmed, Clapper will be the fourth DNI since the office was created five years ago on the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

For Clapper, 69, the spy director position would mark the culmination of a 45-year intelligence career, a background that would give him broader knowledge of the intelligence community than any of his predecessors.

In a long Oval Office meeting with Obama on May 5, Clapper was asked "for his views on the future of the intelligence community and the DNI," one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. "General Clapper followed up with a letter about his vision that greatly impressed the president and convinced him that General Clapper was the right man at the right time for the job."

Still, some question whether Clapper has the standing or political connections to succeed in such a daunting job. Blair was largely sidelined in the position during the first year of the Obama administration and was pushed out after terrorist plots exposed ongoing problems in detecting and stopping attacks.

The director position was created to fix such problems, part of the sweeping reform that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But the position is widely regarded as significantly flawed -- lacking enough authority over budget and hiring decisions to exercise control over the sprawling collection of 16 spy agencies.

Clapper's view of the job, and how much authority it should have, is unclear. He lobbied then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2004 to support the new director position, giving it limited power over spy agencies that had long been funded by the Defense Department.

Clapper was later named undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He is credited with eradicating controversial Rumsfeld-era programs and improving cooperation between the Pentagon and outside agencies.

Even so, Clapper also made sure to insert himself into the chain of command, creating a bureaucratic layer between the director of national intelligence and the heads of agencies that are part of the Pentagon.

A former senior intelligence official said Clapper will face a "real challenge" in taking the DNI position, which has been criticized as lacking authorities adequate to the responsibilities. "He's very talented and well qualified," said the former official, "but his ultimate success in the job will depend on the backing he gets from the president."

On Capitol Hill, both Bond and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee, have voiced concerns that selecting another career military officer for the job would make the position susceptible to influence by the Pentagon, which already controls the bulk of the classified intelligence budget.

Bond said Clapper has previously undermined efforts to strengthen the intelligence director position, largely to preserve the Defense Department's sway over intelligence spending.

"If they wanted to make it a strong DNI, they'd have to get one of their friends, like Leon Panetta," Bond said, referring to the CIA director, who is regarded as well connected politically with the White House.

Staff writers Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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