James R. Clapper Jr. nominated as national intelligence chief

By Anne E. Kornblut and Joby Warrick
Washington Post staff writers
Saturday, June 5, 2010; 3:03 PM

President Obama named retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. as his next director of national intelligence Saturday, choosing a defense veteran to coordinate U.S. intelligence agencies.

Clapper emerged as the front-runner immediately after the last director, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair stepped aside last month following a rocky tenure. But there were questions about whether Obama should pick another intelligence chief with a military background, and some key members of Congress said they had doubts about Clapper.

As news of Clapper's impending nomination broke Friday, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) said he still had reservations. "I believe he is too focused on the Defense Department issues, and he has tried to block our efforts to give more authority to the DNI," Bond said.

White House officials, however, said that Clapper has the stature and good working relationships with the administration that are required for the job. A senior administration official lauded Clapper in an interview earlier in the week, noting that he had "spent 48 years or so in the service of this country."

"He has done just tremendous work at different agencies and departments," said the official, who asked for anonymity to speak freely about the administration's thinking.

Clapper will be the fourth director of national intelligence since the office was created five years ago on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The office has been troubled ever since, with little budget authority or ability to enforce decisions of the other intelligence agencies it is supposed to oversee.

Blair resigned after what officials said was a difficult year and a half in office, as he struggled to navigate the Obama administration -- and in particular lost battles to the CIA director, Leon Panetta. Although the director of national intelligence is tasked with giving the president his intelligence briefing every morning, Blair did so only every two weeks or so, leaving it to his deputies. After he learned that Obama was seeking to replace him, he refused to stay on as an acting director, and his departure has been accompanied by some infighting within the administration.

Still, at a farewell ceremony at the director's offices in Virginia, Blair choked up as he told his colleagues that he still believed in the office, at that it was an important job -- whether or not he held it, according to intelligence officials.

Clapper, 69, has spent more than 45 years in intelligence work and has worked well with non-military intelligence agencies, colleagues say. In 2004, as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, he angered then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he suggested that the Pentagon's four largest intelligence agencies -- including his own -- should report to the new director of national intelligence. Clapper also testified to Congress that he thought reporting to the director of national intelligence would not damage the NGA. His position angered Rumsfeld, and he was forced out of his job in 2006.

"He's the best guy for the job," said Ellen McCarthy, executive director of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and who worked for Clapper from 2007 to 2009. "Not only does he know intelligence, he'll be able to build up the intelligence community. It's one of his strengths as a leader."

McCarthy said two things hurt Blair: He lacked White House support and did not have a good relationship with the CIA. "I don't think that Clapper is going to have any trouble working with the CIA," she said, "And clearly he has the White House's support."

A former senior intelligence official who worked closely with Clapper described him as a "very good choice" but added: "He is walking into a tough situation to say the least."

Clapper has much work to do to salvage relations with key Congressional leaders with whom he sparred in committee hearings, said the official, who insisted on anonymity so he could talk candidly.

Moreover, he said, some intelligence committee members clearly wanted a civilian for the job -- preferably a Washington heavyweight capable of riding herd on the CIA and truly integrating the 16 intelligence agencies under a strong DNI, as Congress envisioned when it created the office.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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