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Obama to tap Pentagon intelligence chief for top spy slot
Obama is reportedly going to announce the nomination in a Rose Garden ceremony tomorrow. Look for him to praise Clapper's very long record of service, the fact that he has led two agencies, and his service under Defense Secretary Robert Gates. That relationship with Gates will be key to Clapper's success. Gates and Clapper have known each other many years, and presumably their good working and personal relationship will bode well for the next DNI. But make no mistake, the secretary of defense is a far more powerful official. He controls the majority of the intelligence budget. The DNI has relatively few powers at his disposal to bend the intelligence community to his will. In the grand battles of the Washington bureaucracy, the Defense Secretary is the DNI's great nemesis.
This isn't the first time Clapper has had to weigh the pros and cons of the nation's top intelligence post. As I wrote in my book, The Watchers, Clapper was one of the first people that retired Admiral Mike McConnell called when he was offered the DNI post by Vice President Dick Cheney, in December 2006. McConnell had recently heard that Clapper would be going to work for Gates, though the nomination hadn't been announced yet. Clapper was a long-time friend of McConnell, and he called him to ask his advice.
The two compared notes. Was it the right time for McConnell to come back into government? Could they both make a difference together and get real work done to, as they saw it, put the intelligence community back on the right track? Both men calculated that with Gates, himself a longtime intel officer, replacing Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, there was an opening for the career class of spies to reassert their influence.
McConnell also wondered whether he should get Gates' read before accepting the DNI nomination. "Absolutely you need to talk to Gates," Clapper said, who then gave McConnell the number of a high-priority switchboard used to locate the secretary anywhere in the world at a moment's notice. McConnell reached Gates on his official airplane as he flew out of Baghdad.
Ultimately, of course, McConnell took the job. In doing so, he looked forward to working with his ally Clapper to boost the morale and professionalism of the intelligence community, which had been tarnished in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and in the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Look to Clapper to once again try and boost the spirits of the career spy class in Washington. Whether he'll be able to navigate the city's treacherous political waters will depend largely on how good a relationship—personal and professional—he has with the president.