Hearings on new intelligence director may center on job's powers

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2010

Confirmation hearings for James R. Clapper Jr., President Obama's nominee to be the country's director of national intelligence, are likely to focus as much on the powers of the office as on its next occupant, administration and Senate sources said.

With the departure of retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, Obama appears to be seeking a less ambitious role for the director of national intelligence (DNI), who is statutory head of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. But members of Congress, who created the position, seem to want the DNI to exercise more authority over the intelligence community.

Last month, for example, when retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair was being asked to resign from the post in part because he had attempted to show his control over the CIA and other agencies, lawmakers were seeking to strengthen the DNI's statutory powers in the fiscal 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, this week called the bill the panel's "top priority," in part because it "provides additional authorities and flexibilities for the DNI." She has delayed the Clapper hearings until Congress passes the bill and Obama signs it into law. Given the legislative schedule, it is all but certain the hearings will not be held until after the July 4 congressional recess.

The bill until recently had been held up by a presidential veto threat. One key element objected to by the White House has been dropped, congressional sources said, and the bill awaits House action. The provision would have given the Government Accountability Office authority to audit intelligence agencies.

Meanwhile, the Senate panel and staff members have been preparing questions for Clapper on how he perceives the job. Feinstein, who met with him Wednesday, said she wants in writing "his views on the DNI [and] the appropriate role of the DNI with respect to agencies within the Department of Defense," given the rapid turnover in the position. Clapper would be the fourth national intelligence director since the job was created five years ago.

Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, is currently undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He has drawn criticism from members of Congress, including Feinstein, who think that a civilian should fill the post. However, the 2004 statute that established the position specified that either the DNI or the deputy should be a uniformed member of the military or someone with experience in military intelligence.

The broader issue is the ambiguous role that the statute envisaged for the DNI, making him or her the president's chief intelligence adviser and also "head" of the 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community. In the first role, directors under President George W. Bush took part in the president's morning briefings.

Blair, Obama's first director, did not see attendance at the briefing as important and often had a deputy attend. At the same time, Blair attempted -- unsuccessfully at times -- to exert authority over CIA or intelligence agencies at the Pentagon and in other departments.

Now Obama and his White House staff have an opportunity to rethink the DNI's role, based on the experience with Blair. The outcome has been a determination that the office should be smaller so that the intelligence chief can focus on a few long-term priorities, but also be able to quickly refocus quickly on new priorities when they arise.

He or she should have a good relationship not only with the president but also with CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. With the rest of the community, the DNI should act "as a visiting symphony conductor" who gets agency players to work better together but cannot fire or promote them, said one official familiar with the White House's thinking on the subject. In this view, the DNI does not need additional statutory powers.

"If the DNI finds one agency is not working with the others, he can go to the president to order it be done," the official added. "That way, the intelligence agencies will see he or she has the president's backing."

The White House is also rethinking the president's daily brief, or PDB, the 18- to 20-page, top-secret paper delivered each morning to Obama and senior officials before the Oval Office national security briefing.

One White House critique of Blair's PDB was that it covered too wide a range of subjects -- since he wanted the president to think ahead -- rather than focusing on immediate issues. Some Obama aides contend that the director or the deputy DNI does not need to be present. But several current and former senior intelligence officials warn that questions raised by Obama and others at that meeting become directives back to intelligence officials, particularly at the CIA.

"They don't want those coming secondhand from a White House aide," said one former participant in the Obama sessions.

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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