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Obama picks Pentagon official as intelligence director

James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force general, would be the fourth person in the difficult post.

June 05, 2010|By Julian E. Barnes and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — James R. Clapper Jr., the Pentagon's chief official for intelligence, counterintelligence and security matters, has been chosen to become the next director of national intelligence, a position the White House described as the second-toughest in Washington, officials said Friday.

If confirmed, Clapper, a retired Air Force general, would succeed Dennis C. Blair, who resigned last month. Clapper was an early favorite for the post, and he would become the fourth director and the third to have a military background.

The position of national intelligence director was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to coordinate 16 intelligence agencies and to smooth out areas of conflict. The director is also in charge of the president's daily intelligence briefing, putting him in close contact with the president and sometimes, according to critics, making him a convenient target for presidential wrath.

Blair left when President Obama became disenchanted with him after the failed Christmas bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit and after the recent bungled attempt to set off an explosive device in New York's Times Square.

The director does not have operational control over any of the 16 agencies he nominally oversees. The post frequently overlaps with existing intelligence fiefdoms and has little power to overcome those more politically connected agencies. Blair reportedly often lost out to CIA chief Leon E. Panetta and White House security advisor John Brennan in disputes over administrative priorities.

But Defense Department officials said that Clapper has skills to succeed in the post where others have failed and would be able to cajole the various intelligence agencies to work together.

"Clapper's power is knowing how to work the system, knowing how the intelligence bureaucracy works and effectively managing it," said a senior Defense Department official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. "That is exactly what this position needs. It doesn't need a strong personality out there vying with Panetta."

Clapper retired from active duty 15 years ago and has worked in and out of the Defense Department in the years since. Serving as a civilian head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in the George W. Bush administration, Clapper was at odds with then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his powerful intelligence deputy, Stephen Cambone, and was ousted from his post.

Tangling with Rumsfeld later became considered to be a badge of honor. "It is kind of like being on Nixon's enemies list," said another Defense Department official.

In one of his first appointments, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates brought Clapper back to serve in the Defense Department's top intelligence job and professionalize a part of the Pentagon that some thought had been politicized under Rumsfeld and Cambone, Defense officials said.

Because he has been confirmed by the Senate before, Clapper would be expected to have an easy road ahead.


Times staff writers Michael Muskal in Los Angeles and David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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