Clapper Promises to Be Tough, but on What?

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A senior White House official recently described the Office of the Director of National Intelligence this way: "After 9/11, we panicked and created a zombie. Then we realized it was a distraction. Then we tried to kill it. But it lived. And now we've got to deal with it." It's hard to imagine Gen. James Clapper (Ret.) taking a job he knew commanded so little respect inside the White House, and, indeed, across the intelligence community. But take it he did.

His confirmation hearings began today with a series of pointed exchanges, with senators and Clapper mouthing tropes that are familiar to viewers of the this zombie horror film. Yes, he believes in a strong and independent DNI, albeit a DNI that does not duplicate the statutory role that agency chiefs play.

He believes the intelligence budget number should be declassified. He believes that the DNI should have stronger authority relative to the Central Intelligence Agency. He's aghast at the state of information technology across the community, wondering why there's no single major counter-terrorism database with a robust search capacity instead of 50 some odd databases with varying degrees of technological sophistication.

He did not bring to the committee a significant, new theory of the case. Mostly, his message was implicit, or explicit when he interrupted senators: I'm tough, I'm not going to take bullshit or bullshit you, and I'm going to make this work. I'm also not going to attempt to run everything.

This is very non-specific. It is either an attempt to limit expectations or it is not Clapper's style to promise things he cannot deliver.

Here are the quotables; think of them as gifts to various camps in this debate:

On the DNI's budget power: "It would be my intention to push the envelope . . . on whether those authorities can be broadened. I would not have agreed to take the position on if I were going to be a titular figurehead or a hood ornament."  Those who know Clapper confirm that he received guarantees of White House back-up for tough calls.

On duplication of effort, a subject raised by the Top Secret America profiles: "One man's duplication is another man's competitive analysis." This means: State can keep its measurement and signals intelligence cell.

On IT: "We still depend too much on the minds of our analysts for things that we ought to be able to rely upon our IT for."  This means: more money for Big IT, better prioritization of analytical capabilities.

On the size of the DNI: "too large." (No one outside of Liberty Crossing disagrees. But where to cut? No one agrees.)

As Spencer Ackerman noted, Clapper gave props to Major General Michael Flynn, the chief intelligence officer for ISAF, who wrote in January that the intelligence community was ill-equippted to transition to a Counterinsurgency strategy. (Flynn is still fighting that battle.)

"My general philosophy is we can be a lot more liberal about declassifying and we should be." -- a nod to civil libertarians, although Clapper also castigated the Washington Post series, which does not reveal much of anything sensitive operationally, for revealing too many sensitive details. So what types of things ought to be declassified?

"We've had far too many DNI confirmation hearings." Actually, this quote belongs to Sen. Kit Bond, now attending his fourth DNI hearing in half a decade. Truth is that much of what Clapper said has been said by the previous DNIs.

One final point.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is very concerned about cyber -- the nexus of warfare and defense, the philosophical and legal debates, the dual-hatting of GEN. Keith Alexander, the man who (as some have put it) is now both the President's ears and the protector of the information that he gets on his Blackberry.  Clapper did not seem to want to engage on this point.



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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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