WASHINGTON — Top Pentagon intelligence chief Lt. Gen. James Clapper is stepping into a whirl of controversy today as he appears before a Senate panel for confirmation as the fourth Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in just over five years.
The rapid turnover in the job, created by Congress in response to 9/11, is only one indicator of how hard it is to impose unity of effort on the vast US intelligence community that includes 16 agencies, some 100,000 employees, and some of the toughest turf battles in Washington.
The last DNI, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, was forced out after unusually public clashes with CIA Director Leon Panetta and White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan.
At the same time, Congress is gridlocked over its own national intelligence strategy. On Monday, the Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously approved a long-delayed intelligence authorization bill for fiscal year 2010. The new draft reflects 10 months of negotiation with the Obama White House over failures to keep Congress informed about “significant undertakings” in covert action programs. Under the terms of the draft law, each intelligence agency must certify annually that they are in compliance with all requirements to notify Congress.
“We hope that the unanimous vote to report this important legislation will lead to its swift passage through both the Senate and the House, and that President Obama will sign into law an intelligence authorization for the first time in five years,” said Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, in a joint statement on Monday.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is locked in a standoff with the White House over the scope of congressional oversight. Ms. Pelosi, a former top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, opposes restricting those briefings to the so-called Gang of Eight, the top Democrat and Republican on intelligence panels and top party leaders in both the House and Senate. She is holding out to ensure that all members of the intelligence committees will be included in these top-secret briefings.
Senators are expected to press General Clapper, who is retired from the Air Force, on such oversight issues, as well as his views on the need to strengthen the powers of the DNI.
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are proposing strengthening the DNI’s hand in future turf battles by investing the office with new budget and personnel authority.
Senators especially want to hear Clapper’s current views on a memo his office sent to Capitol Hill last spring opposing new powers for the DNI on the grounds that they would conflict with the Pentagon’s intelligence needs.
“In the times we’re going through, you cannot have a dysfunctional oversight of intelligence,” says Gov. Thomas Kean, who chaired the 9/11 commission that initially proposed the creation of the DNI.
The 9/11 commission conceived the DNI as operating with a minimal staff. But over the past five years, the DNI’s office has grown to a staff of 650 people. Some members of Congress say that’s layering yet another bureaucracy on an intelligence community that’s choking in bureaucracy.
“I think you could cut the [office of the] DNI by half, with a little narrower focus, and come out with a better product at the other end,” says Rep. William Thornberry, the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.