With a career spanning 46 years in the intelligence business, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. will be the most qualified candidate ever to assume the nation’s top intelligence job.
During the 1990s, he was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he created the Defense HUMINT service to institutionalize the Pentagon’s far-flung efforts to recruit and run foreign agents.
Just two days after the 9/11 attacks, he became director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the steward of the nation’s network of spy satellites.
As an Air Force officer, he was intelligence director for three war-fighting commands: U.S. Forces Korea, Pacific Command, and the then Strategic Air Command.
Since leaving the military, he has worked for a number of private military and intelligence contractors.
But all that experience didn’t make his confirmation hearing for national intelligence director before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday a love-fest. Far from it.
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein grilled him on the role of contractors in the intelligence community, citing an investigative series that began appearing in The Washington Post on Monday listing more than 2,000 private contractors working for “Top Secret America.”
Feinstein insisted that Clapper bring those numbers down, “and I intend to keep pushing on this point until contractors are not used for any inherently governmental purpose,” she said.
But Clapper didn’t take the bait. While acknowledging that the balance “can be improved,” he said he found the Post series veered into “sensationalism.”
“I think there’s some breathlessness and shrillness [in the Post series] that I don’t subscribe to,” he said. “Intelligence . . . now drives everything, so it’s not surprising in my view that we have so many contractors.”
Clapper also appeared to get into trouble with the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, who chastised him for emphasizing a close relationship to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and for being "far too reluctant and reactive" in responding to questions during previous appearances before the committee.
He even threatened to put a hold on Clapper’s nomination if the general wasn’t more forthcoming in his answers to committee questions.
Since 2007, Clapper has been undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and in that capacity grappled for turf with best of them, including his two predecessors as national intelligence director.
Not long after taking the top Pentagon intelligence job, Clapper engineered to get himself “dual-hatted” as defense intelligence director, reporting to the national intelligence director at the same time he reported to the secretary of Defense.
But during his confirmation hearing, Clapper insisted that he is a “truth-to-power guy,” pointing out that he was fired as head of the Geospatial Intelligence agency by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “because I was regarded as too ‘independent’.”
Clapper said that, if confirmed as national intelligence director, he does not intend to be a big reformer and seek yet another grand reorganization of the intelligence community.
“I have become convinced that there is no such thing as the perfect wiring diagram . . . I am more from the school of trying to make what we have work better, rather than advocating yet another organizational upheaval — which, too, would incur the law of unintended consequences,” he told the committee in written responses to questions before Tuesday’s hearing.
More than the institutional lines and wiring diagrams, he argued, “people matter.” Although he vowed to build on his close personal relationship to Gates and to serve as the president’s top intelligence adviser, he also made clear that he considers himself to be the “boss” of CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Clapper easily resolved one pet peeve of Republicans on the intelligence committee.
Noting that a CIA inspector general report in February 2000 found that former CIA Director John Deutch had taken home a “large volume” of highly classified information and put it on unclassified computers connected to the Internet, Sen. Bond asked Clapper whether he would “ensure that Mr. Deutch is never allowed to again have access to sensitive or classified U.S. information in any forum or medium?”
Clapper replied in the affirmative.
Senators also won a pledge from Clapper that he would share with them the underlying intelligence reports used in drafting the upcoming National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs.
After the hotly disputed December 2007 intelligence estimate on Iran claimed that Iran had stopped weaponization activities in 2003, former DNI Admiral Mike McConnell issued an unusual apology, stating that he had allowed the report to become politicized.
“So if I’d had until now to think about it, I probably would have changed a thing or two,” McConnell said later.
The National Intelligence Council, which now sits in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is completing work on a new Iran intelligence estimate but is not expected to make the conclusions public this time so the report won’t become a political football.
In documents submitted to the committee, Clapper listed four main threats to U.S. national security:
- The threat of “malicious cyber activity” against the U.S. government and against private infrastructure
- The “continuing terrorist threat” from al-Qaida and related groups
- The “growing proliferation threat, especially from Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear program”
- Threats to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan
When I was researching my book "Shadow Warriors: Traitors, Saboteurs and the Party of Surrender," I interviewed Clapper about an incident during his tenure as director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency that took place in early April 2003.
Clapper made headlines when he told a breakfast meeting of defense reporters about the incident later that year, revealing that his agency had detected convoys of Iraqi trucks moving into Syria, and said the trucks could have been moving components for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) out of the country to avoid detection.
“I was simply suggesting speculatively that some of [the WMD] was leaving the country,” Clapper told me.
“I also stressed that we don’t have the capability to see inside trucks,” he said. “There was certainly an uptick of traffic in trucks we were seeing at the time the combat phase of Iraqi Freedom was coming to a close. But I couldn’t make a leap that these vehicles were hauling WMD. I’m just suggesting that was one possible way things could have left the country — WMD or other material.”
Would Clapper exercise such extreme caution when reporting intelligence to the president?
“I think, too often, people assume that the intelligence community is equally adept at divining both secrets (which are theoretically knowable) and mysteries (which are generally unknowable),” . . . but we are not,” he told the senators.
“Normally, the best that intelligence can do is to reduce uncertainty for decision-makers whether in the White House, the Congress, the embassy, or the foxhole — but rarely can intelligence eliminate such uncertainty.”
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