James Clapper’s Troubled Tenure as Director of National Intelligence

James Clapper’s televised mishap masks a deeper problem: a national intelligence office that often seems out of the loop. Tara McKelvey on the 9/11 reform that isn’t working.

Then U.S. Director of National Intelligence-designate James Clapper testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Jul. 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

James Clapper’s cringe-inducing encounter with Diane Sawyer was not his finest hour. Here he was, being asked about the arrests of 12 terror suspects that day in London, and the director of national intelligence had to glance at his administration colleagues with an awkward smile that said, Help Me Out Here, Guys.

Watching a counterterrorism czar look clueless on national television is, well, unsettling—especially since the gaffe occurred shortly before the anniversary of the arrest of the Underwear Bomber, aka Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to take down a jetliner headed for Detroit on December 25, and in a year in which another would-be terrorist, Faisal Shahzad, tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square. Luckily, these attempts failed, but that is all the more reason for Clapper to be at the top of his game. Chances are someone else will try again, with another weapon, and soon.

The embarrassing incident—the White House eventually admitted that Clapper should have been briefed on the British arrests—seemed to be another sign that President Barack Obama and his deputies are floundering in the war on terror. And it may point to fundamental problems in the DNI’s office, which has sat uneasily atop the organizational chart since it was invented as a way to reform the turf-conscious intelligence apparatus.

For some in the intelligence community, however, the ABC gaffe was a trivial moment.

The London arrests “weren’t as important as worrying about what the North Koreans are doing,” says Mark Lowenthal, who previously served as the CIA’s assistant director for analysis; besides, he says, high-ranking intelligence officials should not be monitoring television reports. “We don’t pay Jim Clapper to watch the news,” he says.

Even setting aside Clapper’s Blank Moment, his office has hardly been a smashing success. As the main adviser to the president, the National Security Council and Homeland Security Council on national-security issues, his job is to lead the intelligence community, which encompasses the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and more than a dozen other government offices. In official terms, his brief is “to transform the intelligence community into a unified, collaborative and coordinated enterprise.”

Unfortunately, as the threat of a domestic terrorist attack continues to grow, the agencies seem to have become only more unwieldy. By nearly all accounts, the job that Clapper now holds—he won Senate confirmation in August—is rife with problems.

The position was created several years ago, at the 9/11 Commission’s urging, as a way to streamline intelligence gathering and to promote sharing of information among the agencies. Members of the commission, as well as regular Americans, believed that part of the reason al Qaeda managed to wreak havoc on the U.S. was that counterterrorism officials were disorganized and bungling, and that an influential director of national intelligence could fix the mess.

Clapper is “distant bureaucratically and organizationally from the major functions of the intelligence agencies,” admits Lowenthal.

The job, however, has been cursed. The previous director, Dennis Blair, lasted little more than a year—he ran into problems with CIA Director Leon Panetta—and his predecessors did little better in their efforts to manage the unwieldy intelligence community. Clapper is the fourth director in five years.

As a retired Air Force lieutenant general who had served as the Pentagon's chief intelligence official, Clapper seemed like a good choice. He gets high marks from experts such as Lowenthal, who says Clapper has already thrown out bureaucratic encumbrances—for example, by handing off responsibility for a National Intelligence University, which is designed to train better spies and analysts, to the Defense Intelligence Agency—and has made it a more focused organization.

People on the inside are impressed with Clapper’s work. He has adopted “a logical, pragmatic approach to how you deal with really tough problems,” says a senior-level official who works at the directorate of national intelligence and who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

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The problem, say some intelligence experts, is not the man, but the office. Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst who has served on the National Intelligence Council, says the position was created “because there was a decision to ‘do something’ in response to 9/11. It was seized on as a specific, concrete thing and could be pointed to as ‘reform’ to satisfy a strong desire on the American people.” In truth, says Pillar, the job is unwieldy.

Lowenthal agrees that the director has a daunting task. “He’s distant bureaucratically and organizationally from the major functions of the intelligence agencies,” admits Lowenthal, who nonetheless says the job can be done. The structural problems within the intelligence community may be beyond Clapper’s ability to resolve, however, and they pose a problem far greater than his spaced-out television appearance.

So far, though, nobody has come up with a better plan: Creating a new agency, such as a Department of Intelligence, seems dicey. Abolishing the job means the intelligence agencies would revert back to the autonomous state they were in before 2001. That didn’t work out so well, either. Clapper may not have impressed Diane Sawyer, or anyone else, during the interview, but at this point he has the confidence of the one person who matters: the president. Administration officials rushed to defend him after his gaffe, showing that he retains the backing of the White House. For that reason, Clapper is likely to remain, along with the immense problems of national intelligence.

A frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, Tara McKelvey is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy on Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.