News & Politics

Choosing Clapper

Obama to tap Pentagon intelligence chief for top spy slot

If the early reports are true, the old hands of U.S. intelligence will have a very good weekend. President Obama plans to announce his nomination tomorrow of James Clapper to be the next Director of National Intelligence. Clapper is currently the Pentagon's intelligence chief.  (My erstwhile co-worker Marc Ambinder over at the Atlantic has the scoop.)Why will veteran spies be so happy about this news? Sipmly put, Clapper is one of the most seasoned and admired senior intelligence officials in government. A retired Air Force general, he has been director of two spy organizations with global reach: the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which produces highly detailed maps and runs a constellation of imagery satellites. While over the past few weeks leading lawmakers have opposed Clapper's nomination, owing largely to his military service and the preference among some to keep the top intelligence post in a civilian's hands, Obama appears persuaded that Clapper is the best man for the job. He may also be one of the few who was willing to take it. The DNI is a thankless post, as we pointed out when Dennis Blair left it. The White House was reportedly cooling to the Clapper nom. Clapper's willingness to take it, and the short bench of candidates, helps explain the president's decision.

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.

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