Obama nominates Pentagon intel chief to replace ousted Blair

President Barack Obama on Saturday nominated retired Gen. James Clapper as director of national intelligence, calling him “one of our nation’s most experienced and most respected intelligence professionals.”

Clapper is a former lieutenant general in the Air Force who now serves as the top intelligence official at the Pentagon. He has previously led the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

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Obama praised Clapper’s performance in his current role as undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

“He’s improved information-sharing, increased intelligence support to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, upheld civil liberties, and he played a key role in our effort to update and reorient our intelligence community to meet the threats of our time,” the president said in announcing his choice of Clapper in the White House Rose Garden.

“He possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know, even if’s not what we want to hear,” Obama said. “And Jim is a forceful champion of his fellow intelligence professionals, never forgetting what it was like to risk his own life during two combat tours during the Vietnam War.”

Clapper said he was “humbled, honored and daunted” by the nomination. He kept his remarks brief. “Nominees are like my two oldest grandkids who are here today having a life experience: better seen than heard.”

Clapper would replace former U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis Blair, who was ousted as DNI amid criticism of intelligence failures leading up to the botched terrorist attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day last year. Blair’s tenure was marred by turf battles with the Central Intelligence Agency, and several key members of Congress have urged Obama to clearly delineate the DNI’s authority within the intelligence community over budget and personnel matters.

His nomination could face tough partisan opposition in Congress. The prospect of his selection has been drawing fire from vocal GOP critics of the administration’s national security policy, including the senior Republicans on the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and Rep. Pete Hoesktra (R-Mich.).

"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," Bond said in a statement Friday. "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."

Hoekstra has called Clapper “exactly the wrong person” for the DNI job because of his resistance to keeping Congress informed, and on Saturday issued a statemet saying he would oppose the nomination.

"Mr. Clapper has blocked my communications with elements of the intelligence community, and he has been evasive and slow to respond to questions and letters from members of the committee," Hoekstra said. "It is unacceptable and makes America less safe. It puts us as a nation at greater risk."

Hoeskstra, who said that "relations between the White House and Congress on national security matters have fallen to new lows," added that Clappter "does not have the clout or independence to be the voice that provides an alternative to the Obama administration’s prosecute after-the-fact approach to terror."

"An administration that has continuously proven to be slow to respond and politically tone deaf, has once again proven that it has a tin ear with this nomination," Hoekstra said. "Instead of signaling a new beginning and fresh approach, the president has placed yet another brick in the wall he has built between his administration and Congress on national security."

Clapper won key early support from the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who has at times criticized the administration’s handling of national security. “Gen. 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,” Lieberman said in a statement.

On Saturday, Clapper said he could not perform the DNI post without the president’s support “and that of the Congress. And I intend to earn that support from both, as well as the public if I am confirmed for this position.”

Noting that Clapper had already won Senate confirmation for his current Defense position, Obama urged the Senate to approve his nomination “as swiftly as possible” and during the current work period, which will end before the July 4 recess.

“This nomination can’t fall victim to the usual Washington politics,” Obama said.

Jordan Fabian contributed to this article

This story was updated at 12 p.m.