Washington — He’s the right guy to ride herd over America’s intelligence operations. Or he’s a good guy, but the wrong one for that tough job.
Those warring opinions emerged about James R. Clapper after President Barack Obama said Saturday he wants the Pentagon’s current intelligence chief to serve as director of national intelligence — the fourth since the post was created in 2004 — and wants the Senate to confirm him quickly.
“Eminently qualified,” Obama described the blunt-spoken retired Air Force lieutenant general, offering his “complete confidence and support.”
Those who know Clapper, 69, and have worked with him during his long career in public service say he’s never shied away from a fight. That’s just what he may get from senators who will decide whether to put him in a job that comes with an unforgiving mandate, as explained by Obama: ensuring the 16 spy agencies work “as one integrated team that produces quality, timely and accurate intelligence. Let’s be honest — this is a tough task.”
A preview of the Capitol Hill obstacles? “He’s a good guy, but the wrong guy,” said the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri.
It’s a thankless job that has challenged the first three directors. Many intelligence and administrative experts believe the role was ill-conceived when it was set up as part of the post-Sept. 11 reforms in 2004.
Clapper would succeed retired Adm. Dennis Blair, who resigned after frequent clashes with the White House and other intelligence officials. Clapper has held the Pentagon intelligence job longer than expected, at the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
A Vietnam veteran, Clapper once directed the Defense Intelligence Agency, which often works closely with the CIA. He was the first civilian director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes imagery such as satellite pictures or video taken from aircraft. In between, there were a few years in the private sector focusing on intelligence issues.
Gates likes Clapper, defense officials say, because he’s known as always respectful, but always direct.
“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,” Obama said in a Rose Garden ceremony Saturday.
In private, Clapper has faced off with lawmakers, sometimes resorting to colorful language to make a point. Those prickly relations may come back to haunt him as he awaits confirmation.
Bond said Clapper would be outmaneuvered in office, facing off against Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and CIA Director Leon Panetta. Brennan and Panetta have the president’s ear, and carte blanche entry to the Oval Office, Bond said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate committee, has said it would be better to have a civilian in the intelligence job. Feinstein, D-Calif., and Bond had called for Panetta to shift over.
Panetta said in a statement Saturday that “few people have more intelligence experience” than Clapper.