The Right Man for the Job?
According to the Washington Post and other media outlets, retired Air Force Lieutenant General James R. Clapper, Jr. will be named the next Director of National Intelligence. Clapper, who currently serves as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, will be introduced at a Rose Garden event tomorrow morning.
While Clapper is largely unknown to most Americans, he has served in the intelligence community for most of his adult life. As a young signals intelligence officer, Clapper flew collection missions over Southeast Asia on a modified EC-47 aircraft. He advanced steadily over the decades that followed, serving as a senior intelligence officer in Korea during the mid-80s, and as the Air Force's Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence during the first Gulf War. At the time of his retirement from active duty in 1995, Clapper was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
As a civilian, Clapper spent time at two defense contractors before returning to government service in 2001 as the first civilian director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which processes and analyzes much of the data collected from spy satellites and other sensors. He spent five years at the agency before resigning in 2006, reportedly because of conflicts with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Clapper testified before Congress that DoD's four major intelligence agencies should report to the DNI, a position that angered his boss.
After Rumsfeld left the Pentagon, Clapper was nominated to rejoin the Bush Administration, this time as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. In that post, he served as chief advisor on intel matters to the new SecDef, Robert Gates, and his deputy, William Lynn. Clappper also functioned as DoD's primary liason to the DNI, led by retired Navy Admiral Mike McConnell (under President Bush), and more recently, under another former Navy flag officer, Dennis Blair.
Admiral Blair was forced out of the DNI post earlier this month, after only 15 months on the job. His tenure was marked by intelligence failures associated with the unsuccessful "underwear bomber" plot to bring down a U.S. jetliner and run-ins with other members of President Obama's national security team, including CIA Director Leon Panetta and John Brennan, the White House's senior counterterrorism advisor.
In terms of background and experience, Jim Clapper is (arguably) the most-qualified man for the job. He's one of the few spooks who has run two major intelligence agencies, and (more importantly), General Clapper knows the nuts-and-bolts of the business. He knows the star performers (and the weak sisters) in the intelligence community, and has definite ideas about making the DNI construct more efficient and effective.
By comparison, Admiral Blair was a career "ship driver" whose only previous intel experience was as a consumer. He never mastered the community's unique culture and was quickly overwhelmed by the vast bureaucracy and its cut-throat attitude towards "outsiders." Blair's "feuds" with politically-wired opponents like Panetta and Brennan only sealed his fate. In the halls of the DNI (and various intel agencies) Admiral Blair was described as a "dead man walking" long before his departure was announced.
But will Clapper fare any better? Managing an intelligence apparatus that consists of 16 different agencies (and thousands of employees) is a daunting (some would say impossible) task. General Clapper certainly understands the terrain--and he knows the key players--but there's no guarantee he can meld them into a more effective team.
Indeed, Clapper will face many of the same challenges that bedeviled his predecessors. The DNI has limited budget authority, curtailing his ability to control agencies and their operations. Intel organizations have, in the past, found it convenient to slow-roll (or even ignore) DNI directives that aren't to their liking.
Clapper may also have problems with his boss in the White House. During the Bush Administration, General Clapper was a strong supporter of enhanced interrogation techniques, though he also fought for more transparency and accountability in intelligence matters. Clapper may well find himself in a major battle the next time a terror suspect is detained at an airport (or in a foreign land) and other administration officials push to treat the individual as a criminal defendant, and not a hostile combatant.
General Clapper also faces opposition in Congress. Both the Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (California's Diane Feinstein) and the ranking Republican (Kit Bond of Missouri) have expressed reservations, noting that Clapper was often reluctant to brief Congress on the Pentagon's intelligence activities. After 45 years in the intel business, Clapper knows that Congress leaks like a seive, but stonewalling the SSCI doesn't win you any favors from people that control your budget.
All in all, Jim Clapper is a definite improvement over Admiral Blair, bringing experience and expertise back to the DNI post. Will it be enough? Time will only tell. But for his second Director of National Intelligence, President Obama finally had the sense to appoint an intel professional to the post. That's a step in the right direction.