President Barack Obama shrugged off warnings of a fight with Congress and chose a blunt-spoken retired Air Force lieutenant general as his new intelligence chief, with a difficult assignment: complete the job of meshing the nation's 16 spy agencies.
Obama praised James Clapper, the Pentagon's head of intelligence, as an espionage veteran who doesn't mince words.
"Jim is one of our nation's most experienced and most respected intelligence professionals," Obama said in a Rose Garden appearance. "He possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it's not what we want to hear."
If confirmed by the Senate, Clapper would replace retired Adm. Dennis Blair, Obama's first director of national intelligence, who resigned last month after a rocky year and a half on the job.
But lawmakers from both parties have voiced objections to Clapper, and his confirmation is far from certain.
Obama said he wants senators to act quickly to confirm Clapper, saying the nomination "can't fall victim to the usual Washington politics."
Congress created the post in 2004 as part of a revamp of intelligence agencies after the failure to connect the dots before the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet Blair and his two predecessors had a tough time fusing agencies with big budgets, big egos and traditions of independence.
Clapper, 69, is a top aide to Defense Secretary Robert Gates who's spent most of his adult life in military intelligence. He served two combat tours in Vietnam but later went on to head the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes imagery such as satellite pictures or video taken from aircraft, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which often works closely with the CIA.
He told Obama he was "humbled, honored and daunted" by the nomination, and pledged to earn the support of lawmakers and the public. But he spoke for under a minute, insisting nominee spymasters are "better seen than heard."
Clapper's nomination comes despite objections by some lawmakers in both parties, who complain he's been combative and sometimes obstructive under questioning on Capitol Hill.
Those critics also question whether he will have any sway in Obama's influential intelligence inner circle, which includes White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and CIA Director Leon Panetta.
Blair clashed often with that inner circle — most publicly when he and Panetta sparred over who could name station chiefs abroad. Panetta won.
But Blair also took some of the blame when a Nigerian man slipped onto a Detroit-bound jet on Christmas Day with explosives hidden in his underwear. A probe concluded spy agencies had failed to act on numerous warning signs.
Obama acknowledged intelligence coordination remains a work in progress. "Let's be honest. This is a tough task," he said.
Clapper has won many fans in the military community and is known for his blunt, sometimes salty speech and direct manner.
But that manner has made for critics on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich, said Clapper was the wrong choice, because, he said, he showed disdain for Congress and the oversight process.
Hoekstra and other lawmakers also questioned whether the retired general would fare any better than his predecessor Blair in clashes with the CIA's Panetta — an administration insider and former lawmaker himself, with a reputation for knowing how to work the system.
Sen. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that by choosing Clapper, Obama "has ensured our terror-fighting strategy will continue to be run out of the Department of Justice and White House."
The committee's leader, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said last week she wanted a civilian in the role.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman in Washington and Anne Gearan in Singapore contributed to this report.
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