Intelligence nominee vows to take on CIA

President Obama’s nominee for director of national intelligence promised not to be a “hood ornament” and said he would overrule the CIA director when necessary.

James Clapper, in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, repeatedly pledged to protect his turf and overrule CIA Director Leon Panetta in any potential conflict between the two agencies. The two organizations have dueled for control in the past, with the CIA often winning the arguments in disputes brokered by the White House.

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“I would not have agreed to take this on if I was going to be a titular head or a hood ornament,” Clapper said Tuesday. “There needs to be a clear, defined, identifiable leader of the intelligence community to exert direction and control over the entire intelligence community.”

Later, when Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) directly asked him if he believed he had the authority to overrule the CIA director, Clapper didn’t hesitate.

“Yes, senator, I do,” he replied.

Clapper’s hearing could not be more timely, coming on the heels of a sweeping Washington Post investigation into the secretive, mammoth intelligence community that has grown so quickly since Sept. 11, 2001, that it defies effective oversight. The series has stimulated public scrutiny of the overlapping intelligence webs and their heavy reliance on private contractors to perform tasks at dramatically inflated prices compared to what their government counterparts are paid for roughly the same type of work.

Clapper’s strong statements are particularly telling because they come after a period of turmoil at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and confusion over lines of authority within the intelligence community. If confirmed, Clapper would be the fourth person to hold the job in the office’s five-year history, succeeding former Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, who resigned under pressure in mid-May.

The White House last year had to step in to resolve frictions between Blair and Panetta over whether the top U.S. spy in foreign countries would be determined by Blair or remain the CIA station chief of that particular country, how it had operated in the past. National Security Adviser James Jones, and his deputy, John Brennan, ultimately sided with Panetta.

In the wake of these disputes and others, Congress expressed frustration that DNI does not have the power provided in the legislation it passed creating the position and has called on Obama to clearly delineate the position’s authority within the intelligence community, especially when it comes to budget and personnel matters.

Obama has not done so publicly, and his choice of Clapper, a veteran intelligence official who previously served as the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, initially only served to roil intelligence leaders on Capitol Hill. Prior to his selection, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the committee, had warned against naming someone who had too many ties and too much loyalty to the Pentagon.

After Obama announced Clapper’s selection, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Intelligence panel, criticized him for lacking the clout needed to win in turf wars with the White House, the Justice Department and the CIA. He also accused Clapper of being “less than forthcoming with Congress” and said he had recently blocked Congress’s efforts to empower the DNI.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) went even further, calling Clapper “exactly the wrong person” for the job because of his resistance to keeping Congress informed.

During the hearing, Clapper assured Bond and others that he would not hesitate to share information with the congressional intelligence committees and would let the panels know if he disagreed with a policy decision by someone else in the intelligence community or among other decisionmakers.

In response to questions, he also took issue with some elements of the Washington Post series, specifically the line that no one knows how much money the intelligence system costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist and how many agencies perform the same work.

“The statement implies that this is completely out of control, but I believe it is in control,” he said. “The common denominator is the money is appropriated and has fairly specific strings attached.” He said the fact that Congress controls the purse strings serves as a “control over the allegedly profligate intelligence communities.”

It’s difficult to determine how many people are employed because some contractors work part-time and some divide their work between different government agencies, so it’s hard to count all the actual bodies on the government payroll for intelligence services, he noted.

But Clapper said he was committed to reducing the size of the community, just liked he was tasked to do after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the post-Cold War years in the 1990s. When asked by Feinstein whether a 5 percent or a 10 percent reduction in the size of the community and its budget was reasonable, Clapper would not commit.

“The article is a testament to the ingenuity of our contractor base,” he said. “That’s not to say it’s all efficient. I think this is a great area in which to work with the oversight committees. There should be limits on the number of full-time equivalent contractors embedded in the intelligence community.”


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