On Saturday, President Obama announced that he will be nominating Defense Department intelligence chief James Clapper to be the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI). If confirmed, Clapper will take over the office held by Obama’s first DNI, Dennis Blair, who was fired last month.
Clapper has held a variety of military positions in his long career, including being an assistant chief of staff for intelligence at the Air Force headquarters in Washington from 1990-1991 and being director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2001-2006. Perhaps his strongest advocate is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who told reporters that Clapper has “the temperament, experience and chemistry with leaders in the intelligence community to succeed as the nation’s top intelligence officer.” Gates even went as far as to joke that “when the president first asked me about this, I kind of winced with pain because the idea of losing Jim at the Defense Department is a real loss for us.”
However, the Wall Street Journal reports, “the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, which is responsible for confirming him, have both publicly opposed his appointment, favoring a civilian for the role.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who is the top Democrat, has concerns that Clapper may be “beholden to the Pentagon’s interests.” Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has complained that Clapper has been “evasive and slow to respond to questions and letters from members of the committee.”
Liberal critics are pointing out that Clapper, while serving as the head of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, helped assist the Bush administration lie that Iraq possessed illegal weapons of mass destruction. Speaking to reporters in October 2003, Clapper suggested that the illicit weapons had “unquestionably” been moved to Syria:
The official, James R. Clapper Jr., a retired lieutenant general, said satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material “unquestionably” had been moved out of Iraq. [...]
He said he was providing a personal assessment. But he said “the obvious conclusion one draws” was that there “may have been people leaving the scene, fleeing Iraq, and unquestionably, I am sure, material.” A spokesman for General Clapper’s agency, David Burpee, said he could not provide further evidence to support the general’s statement.
Former Bush adviser Karl Rove cites Clapper’s theory in his book Courage and Consequence to defend claims by the Bush administration that it believed Iraq posed an imminent security threat to the United States.
The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder reports that the White House had asked Clapper to step down from his current Pentagon role before being nominated to ease concerns about his military background. Clapper refused because he “does not want to be out of a job if his confirmation hearing doesn’t go well.”