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Intel Chief Nominee Clapper Faces Tough Questioning by Lawmakers

July 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Gen. James Clapper, the nominee to become the nation's fourth director of national intelligence, faced a grilling by lawmakers Tuesday. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and former White House counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN:And we turn to the latest attempt to fill what has been a complex and even controversial job aimed at keeping the nation safe.

Retired Air Force General James Clapper appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee this afternoon, bidding to become the nation’s fourth director of national intelligence.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER (RET.), national intelligence director nominee: We are the largest, most capable intelligence enterprise on the planet. It is a solemn, sacred trust of the DNI to make that enterprise work for the sake of this nation and its people.

JEFFREY BROWN:Clapper is currently undersecretary of defense for intelligence. He also served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1990s.

President Obama noted that resume when he nominated Clapper last month.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With four decades of service to America, Jim is one of our nation’s most experienced and most respected intelligence professionals.

JEFFREY BROWN:The 9/11 attacks led to the creation of the Cabinet- level post of director of national intelligence, or DNI, after the 9/11 Commission faulted the intelligence community for a lack of coordination that might have prevented the attacks.

The DNI channels all intelligence-related information to the president and oversees the National Counterterrorism Center, or NCTC. Sixteen separate agencies and departments feed information to the center, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.

But, from the beginning, the job has been fraught with challenges. Turf battles among intelligence agencies have hurt all three of General Clapper’s predecessors, including the most recent, Admiral Dennis Blair, who was forced to step down in May.

At today’s confirmation hearing, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, said Clapper is taking on a critical task and a tough one.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN,(D-Calif.): Intelligence growth has not always led to improved performance. Growth in the size and number of agencies, offices, task forces, and centers has also challenged the ability of former directors of national intelligence to truly manage the community.

General Clapper, I want to be clear that we do not question your service, your knowledge, or your capability. We only ask that you clearly indicate your vision and commitment to head the intelligence community this afternoon and work to give it direction and prevent sprawl, overlap, and duplication.

JEFFREY BROWN:The hearing came amid a series in The Washington Post that found that the intelligence community has grown so large since 9/11, no one knows how effective it is and that it’s become heavily reliant on private contractors in preserving national security.

Today, Clapper responded to the article co-written by Dana Priest.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER: I didn’t agree with — with some of that. I think there was some breathless and shrillness to it that I — I — I don’t subscribe to. I think she’s extrapolated from anecdotal — her anecdotal experience in interviews with people. That’s not to say that there aren’t inefficiencies and there aren’t things we can improve.

JEFFREY BROWN:Republican Senator Kit Bond, the committee’s vice chair, asked a question at the start that many might have been wondering.

SEN. CHRISTOPHER BOND, (R-Mo): You are now seeking one of the hardest jobs in Washington, one fraught with maximum tensions. Frankly, today, I ask you to tell us why.

JEFFREY BROWN:Still, Clapper promised to meet the challenges if he’s confirmed.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER: I wouldn’t have agreed to take this position on if I were going to be a titular figurehead or a hood ornament. I believe that the position of director of national intelligence is necessary.

And whether it’s the construct we have now or the director of central intelligence in the old construct, there needs to be a clear, defined, identifiable leader of the intelligence community to exert direction and control over the entirety of that community.

JEFFREY BROWN:Responding to a hypothetical question from Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the general made clear his sense of the chain of command within the intelligence apparatus.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), Oregon: Do you believe that you would have the authority to overrule the CIA director?

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER: I do.

JEFFREY BROWN:Clapper’s nomination is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate.

And for more on this, I’m joined by Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — he served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and is now professor of history at the University of Virginia — and Richard Clarke, former White House point person on counter terrorism in the Clinton administration and early days of the George W. Bush administration. He now heads his own consulting firm.

Richard Clarke, we heard Senator Bond say, we’re six years into this experiment of intelligence reform, and we have a long way to go.

Why? What’s the basic problem? Focus first on the DNI position.

RICHARD CLARKE, former U.S. counterterrorism official: Well, the problem is, you do have these 16 agencies, five of which are very large. And, suddenly, someone is put on top of them who says, I’m in charge and I’m going to tell you what to do, when, formerly, they were independent.

And, in Washington, everyone is concerned about their turf, their rights, their prerogatives. No one wants to give up what they had, which was control of their own agency, to some new coordinator. So, they have resisted. And there’s been a whole series of bureaucratic battles fought in Washington over the last six years to reassert the influence and control of the agencies, as opposed to this new thing that’s been put on top of them.

And it hasn’t worked very well. And there’s also been a sort of unfortunate tendency by the directors of national intelligence to greatly increase the size of their staff. So, what might have been a good idea with a few people has become a whole new level of bureaucracy, a giant bureaucracy, with lots of contractors, as The Washington Post pointed out.

JEFFREY BROWN:Well, Philip Zelikow, this idea grew out of the 9/11 Commission. Has it fulfilled, met any of your expectations or hopes? Or, if not, where has it fallen short?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, former executive director, 9/11 Commission: It’s a partial success. It’s a — still a work in progress.

Here, it’s done two things. It’s closed a big domestic foreign divide that used to actually mark our intelligence community profoundly 10 years ago, where the people who did domestic stuff were in one corner; the people who did foreign stuff were in another. We still have some of those problems, but that divide has been bridged in ways that people now take for granted, but is a huge improvement over the pre-9/11 condition.

And the National Counterterrorism Center does a good job in working with entities like the NYPD, for example, as well as with folks in the military.

A second thing that’s — it’s made some progress in is being able to move some substantial money around to respond to new problems and to do some back-office functions that were extremely redundant and overlapping beforehand. It’s made some modest progress in that realm.

The issue is whether it’s — it’s gone far enough. Frankly, the Congress didn’t enact the full recommendation the report had even for the executive branch, because the turf battles that we talk about in the executive branch are mirrored in the Congress.

But that’s not all. The structures that control all this money aren’t just structures in the executive branch. They’re structures in the Congress, and the Congress didn’t change its structure at all.

JEFFREY BROWN:Right.

So, Mr. Clarke, if you have structures upon structures, and you have turf battles upon turf battles, here we have a new man, General Clapper. What can he bring to it? What would you like to see happen to this position?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, Jim Clapper is unique, in that he’s actually run two of the big five agencies, and he has the trust of the Pentagon. So, that should enable him to do some things. What I…

JEFFREY BROWN:Because hasn’t there been some tension with the Pentagon?

RICHARD CLARKE: There’s been a lot of tension between the intelligence community and the Pentagon. They fight over the same pot of money. They fight over roles and missions.

What I would like to see Jim do is start downsizing this incredible bloat that has occurred since 9/11 and about which The Post has written so well yesterday and today. We’re going to need to right-size the intelligence community.

And taking the power that he has to move money around, he’s going to have to, I think, beginning next year make cuts in the intelligence community budget. And this is the first time in the last several years that this has happened. The intelligence community budget has tripled since 9/11. Anything that anyone ever wants, if they say it’s about terrorism or they say it’s about cyber-security, they get the money for it.

JEFFREY BROWN:So, you’re not talking just about his office. You’re talking about the entire community that he…

RICHARD CLARKE: I’m talking about the $75 billion it costs to run these 16 agencies. And there is regrettable overlap. Some redundancy is a good thing, but redundancy upon redundancy is not.

And we need to take a good look at what has grown up in the last 10 years and downsize it.

JEFFREY BROWN:Well, what do you see, Mr. Zelikow? The growth of this agency that really came after 9/11 and that you tried to provide some structure to, has it grown too large? Is it time to be cutting back on it? What do you see?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: Well, the DNI — Dick Clarke was right, A, about the DNI’s office itself having more people than it needs to do the coordinating oversight job. It’s — sometimes, when you have more people, you actually dilute your power.

B, he’s right about Dana Priest’s portrait of bloat being pretty well accurate. And I was troubled that Jim Clapper, in his testimony, characterized the Washington Post story as shrill, instead of getting behind that story and using the political momentum it’s creating as a club that he can use to help beat this down into a more manageable size and a more transparent entity.

But the thing that I would stress above all is, it’s not just about cutting it back, because bottom line is, why do we want this gigantic machine anyway? We want it so that it can help direct a spotlight, energetically, purposefully, on the most dangerous problems the country is facing, and it can redirect that spotlight quickly if new problems arise, instead of taking years to turn.

The second thing we need it to be able to do is offer creative, thoughtful insight on the greatest problems facing the country. So, quantity of thought clearly doesn’t equate to quality of thought. And there’s an impression that’s arising that we were building a gigantic muscle-bound creature here that is like a kind of brontosaurus, enormous and intimidating, its bulk, but with a brain that’s not very large.

In other words, you have a lot of talented people, but the president somehow doesn’t seem to be getting the full sum of all these parts.

JEFFREY BROWN:Well, let me, just in our brief time here, Richard Clarke, do you — is it at the point where the new system is so flawed that it would be better to start over?

I mean, I was interested to hear General Clapper say, whether it’s the new construct or we go back to the old CIA, somebody has — well, his point was, somebody has got to be in charge.

RICHARD CLARKE: Absolutely right.

And I think we ought to look at it as something like a large company, like, say, General Electric, that has lots of little companies underneath it. The CEO’s office is relatively small. And they look at strategy. They look to see what’s falling in between the cracks.

That’s what he ought to be doing. But he will only be effective if the president embraces him. What hasn’t happened with the last several DNIs is, they have not been seen to be really close to the president.

If the president treats Jim Clapper as a trusted adviser, like the national security adviser, then he will have the influence and trust that he needs to execute his job. If he’s just another bureaucrat coming to the meetings, he won’t get it done.

JEFFREY BROWN:All right.

In just about 30 seconds, Phil Zelikow, a final word from you. Do you think that is possible?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: It is possible, but I want to punch home the point again about the Congress.

What Dick Clarke said about the relationship with the president is absolutely right, but it’s not complete unless Congress also aligns itself so it’s more functional, because, frankly, a lot of the power and resources is there. All these entities sprawling around, the reason they exist, the reason they keep getting money is because they have a network of supporters, many of them in the Congress.

And Congress has to organize itself more functionally. The committee Jim Clapper testified to this afternoon, the one you saw in your news clip, that’s not the committee that gives out the money.

JEFFREY BROWN:All right, Philip Zelikow and Richard Clarke, thank you both very much.

RICHARD CLARKE: Thank you.