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Likely Intel-Czar Nominee Faces Tough Congressional Battle

President Obama has named Pentagon intel chief James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, as the new director of national intelligence. However, Clapper's nomination faces potentially serious political problems on Capitol Hill.

Defense and intelligence sources said late on Friday that President Obama was expected to name Pentagon intel chief James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, as the new director of national intelligence on Saturday. However, as we reported on Thursday, a Clapper nomination faces potentially serious political problems on Capitol Hill. Both the Democratic chairwoman and the Republican vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee have said they think Clapper would be the wrong candidate for what is becoming one of the government’s most thankless jobs.

White House officials had no immediate comment on news reports, such as this one and this one, indicating that Obama would nominate Clapper for the post on Saturday. However, four U.S. officials familiar with defense and intelligence matters, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, said their understanding was that Clapper’s appointment was indeed expected. One current and one former official said they had heard suggestions that in order to avoid likely congressional opposition, the president had initially offered Clapper a recess appointment to the post, which would have avoided the need for Senate confirmation; according to this version of events, however, Clapper rejected that idea because it would make his working relationship with Congress more fraught than ever. The Pentagon and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

As we reported here, Senate intelligence-committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein and vice chairman Kit Bond have both publicly voiced opposition to a Clapper appointment to the post. Feinstein argued this on the grounds that it would be better to enlist someone with a civilian background. Bond expressed opposition to a Clapper appointment for several reasons, including his concern that Clapper in the past had obstructed Senate intelligence committee efforts to give the director of national intelligence (DNI) more power.

Feinstein was said by congressional officials to be traveling overseas on Friday; a spokesman did not immediately respond to questions from Declassified as to whether she now might be willing to change her mind on a Clapper nomination. A congressional official familiar with Bond’s views said the senator was “pretty upset” to learn that the White House was proceeding with a Clapper nomination, and would likely vote to reject him.

Clapper did get one quick vote of support from Sen. Joe Lieberman, the “independent Democrat” from Connecticut, who said that Clapper “has vast experience in the intelligence community, has a proven record as an administrator and has always been a proponent of a strong DNI.” However, while the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that Lieberman chairs has vast jurisdiction to investigate almost any government activity, it doesn’t have direct authority over intelligence agencies and has no role in the DNI confirmation process.

As we reported yesterday, the Pentagon issued a vigorous denial of congressional allegations that Clapper had disrespected intelligence-oversight committees, and gave a detailed defense of his dealings with the intelligence panels. Clapper is one of the few senior government officials with the kind of experience that an intel czar needs: he has run two intelligence agencies (the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency) and, as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has managed rivalries between these and other Pentagon spy units. But given congressional opposition, even if he is confirmed, he will begin his tenure at DNI in a weak political position. Some cynics on Capitol Hill suggest that this is exactly what other big intelligence players in the Obama administration—particularly White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and CIA Director Leon Panetta—would prefer to see in a new intelligence czar.

(After this item was posted, we received the following statement from Bond’s office: “Unfortunately, with his pick in Jim Clapper as the next DNI, the President has ensured our terror-fighting strategy will continue to be run out of the Department of Justice and White House. While Jim has served our nation well, he lacks the necessary clout with the President, has proven to be less than forthcoming with Congress, and has recently blocked our efforts to empower the DNI, which is why at this time I’m not inclined to support him.”)

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