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Obama nominates Clapper to head spy agencies

President Barack Obama has nominated the Pentagon's top intelligence official to head the nation's 16 spy agencies.
Image: Obama Announces James Clapper Jr. As National Intelligence Director
President Barack Obama announces retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. as his nomination for director of national intelligence.Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama shrugged off warnings of a fight with Congress and chose a blunt-spoken retired Air Force lieutenant general as his new intelligence chief, with a difficult assignment: complete the job of meshing the nation's 16 spy agencies.

Obama praised James Clapper, the Pentagon's head of intelligence, as an espionage veteran who doesn't mince words.

"Jim is one of our nation's most experienced and most respected intelligence professionals," Obama said in a White House Rose Garden appearance. "He possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it's not what we want to hear."

If confirmed by the Senate, the 69-year-old Clapper would replace retired Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama's first director of national intelligence, who resigned last month after frequent clashes with the White House and other intelligence officials. Clapper has held the Pentagon intelligence job longer than expected, at the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Clapper told Obama he was "humbled, honored and daunted" by the nomination, and pledged to earn the support of lawmakers and the public. But he spoke for under a minute, insisting nominee spymasters are "better seen than heard."

Obama said he wants senators to act quickly to confirm Clapper, saying the nomination "can't fall victim to the usual Washington politics."

But lawmakers from both parties have voiced objections to Clapper, and his confirmation is far from certain.

"He's a good guy, but the wrong guy," said the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri.

Striking a balance
Congress created the director of national intelligence post in 2004 as part of a revamp of intelligence agencies after the failure to connect the dots before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Yet Blair and his two predecessors had a tough time fusing agencies with big budgets, big egos and traditions of independence.

A Vietnam veteran, Clapper once directed the Defense Intelligence Agency, which often works closely with the CIA. He was the first civilian director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes imagery such as satellite pictures or video taken from aircraft. In between, there were a few years in the private sector focusing on intelligence issues.

Gates likes Clapper, defense officials say, because he's known as always respectful, but always direct.

In private, Clapper has faced off with lawmakers, sometimes resorting to colorful language to make a point. Those prickly relations may come back to haunt him as he awaits confirmation.

Bond said Clapper would be outmaneuvered in office, facing off against Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and CIA Director Leon Panetta. Brennan and Panetta have the president's ear, and carte blanche entry to the Oval Office, Bond said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate committee, has said it would be better to have a civilian in the intelligence job. Feinstein and Bond had called for Panetta to shift over.

Panetta said in a statement Saturday that "few people have more intelligence experience" than Clapper. A senior administration official insisted that Clapper has worked well with Panetta and other intelligence chiefs — and wouldn't have taken the job if he thought he didn't have entree.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the job discussions, said Obama had a long talk with Clapper about the job May 5 — more than two weeks before Blair announced his resignation — then Clapper followed up with a memo outlining his view of the position.

Obama noted that the Senate has voted to confirm Clapper for senior positions on four separate occasions. "Given the importance of this position, the urgent threats to our nation, and Jim's unique experience, I urge the Senate to do so again and as swiftly as possible," he added.

In an earlier post at the Pentagon, Clapper went head to head with former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Ironically, it was over whether the director of national intelligence should be a strong position, usurping some of the Defense Department's authority.

Rumsfeld said no. Clapper said yes. Clapper lost both the argument and —later — his job.

Blair, Obama's first intelligence chief, found himself increasingly on the outs with the White House, clashing directly with Panetta in turf battles that former CIA official Brennan ultimately had to settle, almost always in Panetta's favor.

Blair also took some of the blame when a Nigerian man slipped onto a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear. A probe concluded spy agencies had failed to act on numerous warning signs.

One senior official who worked for Blair said he and his aides were frustrated with what the official called the lack of guidance from the White House. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said that he and Blair likened their situation to an invisible dog fence. He said they would joke to each other that they never knew where the no-go lines were "until we got zapped."

The director isn't a Cabinet member and lacks much budget authority. One former CIA chief, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, said the intelligence director is basically a "convener in chief."

"These are birth defects in the position itself," not in the person trying to do the job, agreed John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who's president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But Hamre said these are some of the very important, though arcane, internal issues that Clapper is well suited to tackle.

Hamre cited the different ways that intelligence agencies treat suspected terrorists living inside the United States. "Some automatically treat them as if they are U.S. citizens, with the same privacy rights as U.S. citizens," he said, simply because of their presence in the country.

"Normalizing the agencies so they operate the same way, agency to agency — that's clearly the kind of thing Clapper would like," Hamre said. "Jim's a manager. He'll try to understand what's working or not working.