Obama Chooses Clapper as National Intelligence Director, to Replace Blair

President Barack Obama announced that he will nominate James Clapper as director of national intelligence and called him one “of our most respected” professionals in the field.

Clapper, 69, “possesses a quality that I value in all of my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know, even if it’s not what we want to hear,” the president said yesterday.

Clapper, currently undersecretary of defense for intelligence, now faces Senate confirmation hearings to formally replace Dennis Blair, 63, the retired admiral who resigned last month.

As the top manager of U.S. spy operations, Clapper would oversee 16 U.S. intelligence agencies with a combined budget of $47.5 billion. Clapper would advise the president, the National Security Council and the Homeland Security Council and oversee the National Intelligence Program.

Part of Clapper’s job would be to better integrate the various agencies, a presidential priority that is complicated by interagency rivalries. A retired Air Force lieutenant general, Clapper has been in the Pentagon’s top intelligence job since 2007 and been director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Obama said his administration was building on improvements in the intelligence community’s performance in the last decade.

Improvement Needed

“Our intelligence community has made great strides since the 9/11 attacks,” Obama said. Referring to an attempted Christmas day bombing on a flight from Europe, he added that “as we saw in the failed attack over Detroit, we need to do even better. We need to constantly evolve and adapt and improve.”

Clapper is the fourth national intelligence director in the five years since the post was created.

“He’s inheriting a very tough job,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington policy group. Individual agency security concerns and turf battles impede communication, Lieberthal said.

Congress created the post of national intelligence director with a 2004 law to increase coordination and communication among intelligence agencies after the U.S. spy network failed to thwart the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The first director, former ambassador John Negroponte, took office in May 2005.

Not Enough Power

There was debate in Congress about how much power the new intelligence director should wield. Compromises during the crafting of the law left the DNI too weak to adequately lead the intelligence community or make the changes it needed, Lieberthal said.

“The DNI was created to bring it all together, but wasn’t given the proper leverage, the budget power, to do so,” Lieberthal said. “The DNI would have to have a significant level of authority put in his hands to make the changes needed, but Congress has not seen fit to give that to one individual, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon.”

Not only is the DNI position not seen as strong enough, said David Rothkopf, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that person is supposed to corral very powerful agencies.

“You couldn’t pick anybody better suited to the job than Clapper,” Rothkopf said. If he fails, “it will be further proof that it’s not a matter of who has the job, it’s about the conception of the job,” he said.

Panetta’s Role

Clapper will do well if Obama empowers him and makes clear that Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta is in a secondary role, Rothkopf said.

“The structure on paper or the intent of Congress in creating the job is secondary to the structure that is effectively mandated by the president,” Rothkopf said.

Obama was not willing to give that authority to Blair, Rothkopf said, “so Blair was at loggerheads with Panetta and others, he was also at loggerheads with Obama.” Blair faced rivalry within the intelligence community and lost a battle with Panetta over personnel at a CIA station.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies have been faulted by critics for failing to head off the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day and an attack in Times Square on May 1. Both plots failed because the bombs didn’t explode.

Blair’s resignation became public two days after the Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report that found 14 intelligence failures that preceded the Christmas Day bombing attempt.

Difficult Job

Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, who was the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence until January 2009 and continues to serve on the panel, said the next director “will play a critical role in determining the success of the intelligence reforms and intelligence community integration that we implemented five years ago.”

Panetta yesterday praised Clapper’s intelligence experience and said “the men and women of the CIA look forward to working closely with him.”

The ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, said June 4 that he may withhold his support from Clapper, saying Clapper “lacks the necessary clout with the president.”

Obama said he’s spoken with Senate leaders and told them that he expects Clapper’s confirmation “to be completed during this work period,” which continues until the July 4 Independence Day holiday.

“This nomination can’t fall victim to the usual Washington politics,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Washington at kandersen7@bloomberg.net

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