Intelligence director nominee faces a grilling
WASHINGTON – Tough questions and blunt answers are likely Tuesday when retired Air Force Gen. James T. Clapper goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee seeking confirmation as the next director of national intelligence.
Clapper is expected to explain how he would streamline the massive flow of information from the intelligence community's 16 agencies. He has already answered more than 80 questions from the Intelligence Committee, providing some 90 pages in responses that will be posted to the committee's website at the start of the hearing.
Congress created the DNI post in 2004 because of a perceived lack of coordination that preceded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But critics from the White House to the intelligence community say the intelligence chief's role is ill-defined because lawmakers did not want to give the director the authority to override decisions made by the agencies under his or her purview. They contend that has reduced the DNI's role to what some call "the cajoler in chief," whose real authority rests on the ability to persuade others to listen to his or her recommendations.
President Barack Obama nominated Clapper more than six weeks ago after he pressed retired Adm. Dennis Blair to step down. During Blair's tumultuous 16-month tenure, he clashed with CIA director Leon Panetta over questions of overlapping authority. Blair was also seen as out of step with the inner national security sanctum led by White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who had to preside over the Blair-Panetta wrangles.
Clapper has been praised by both Brennan and Panetta as someone they respect and work with regularly in his current role as the Pentagon's top intelligence official. Described as detail-oriented, Clapper is seen as less likely to pick turf battles with agency heads.
But Clapper's critics include the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has complained that his military background is inappropriate for a mostly civilian intelligence network.
Clapper has faced the nomination process three times before — first as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, then to lead the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and, most recently, as undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Some lawmakers said Clapper withholds information from them. He "does not have a good reputation in the intelligence committees for being straightforward and actively forthcoming," said Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, the Intelligence Committee's ranking Republican. "We're going to need to straighten that out."
If Clapper fails to convince him that he's ready to change, Bond said he would consider putting a hold on his nomination. "All options are on the table," Bond said.
Clapper is expected to face questioning over a memo drafted by his Pentagon staff that expressed concern that some authority that would be given to the DNI in the 2010 intelligence authorization bill could encroach on the Defense Department's authority.
Clapper's hearing was delayed as part of a debate within Congress over whether to prevent the nomination from going forward until the White House signed off on that bill.
Passed in the Senate, the 2010 bill is still in a holding pattern on the House side, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., bargains with the administration over further expanding intelligence oversight.