Clapper: Obama Angered by Intelligence Leaks

In a meeting yesterday, President Obama vented his frustration about the spate of recent leaks of classified intelligence, leaving James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, by his own admission, "ashamed."

"Yesterday, I was ashamed to have to sit there and listen to the President express his great angst about the leaking in this town," Clapper said after a speech at the Bipartisan Policy Center's conclave in Washington on domestic intelligence.

He said he could not fathom the idea of "widely quoted amorphous and anonymous senior intelligence officials who get their jollies from blabbing to the media .... people who are allegedly government officials in responsible positions who have supposedly taken an oath." He said the President noted that "the irony here is people engaged in intelligence who turn around and talk about it publicly."

Earlier in his speech, Clapper said that counter-intelligence "is one of my great priorities."

And he said that the leak of thousands of classified cables to the Wikileaks website threw up a "yellow flag" that would, at least in the short term, "have a chilling effect on need-to-share," referring to the principle within the intelligence community that analysts and operators should have easier access to compartmentalized information.

Three weeks ago, following the publication of back-to-back stories outing CIA agents in Afghanistan and Special Forces operations in Yemen, Clapper issued an unusual public statement urging intelligence officials to stop leaking.

For 58 days, Clapper has been the DNI, and he has kept his own counsel. Today, he revealed how busy he's been. "The most daunting challenge I have is time management," he said. He's responsible for managing the intelligence community and serving as the President's chief intelligence adviser. 

Clapper revealed that he is collapsing the senior management of his office from four deputy directors to one, who will be in charge of intelligence integration. Clapper said the principal deputy, a position mandated by statute, would serve as the chief operating officer for the community, allowing Clapper more time to advise the President and policy-makers.

This morning, Clapper chose as the subject of his first public address (a brief one) the controversial subject of domestic intelligence gathering. The U.S. homeland, he noted, had been subjected to five attacks or near attacks over the past year, a pace that exceeds any in recent memory. 

"The increasing role of Westerners in al-Qaeda and associated groups increases their knowledge of security groups and practices and increases their access to the U.S.," Clapper said. "Social media and virtual communities have become as important as physical communities, particularly among youths. Threats these days are often not purely foreign or domestic."

Clapper called for a better legal framework to allow foreign and domestic intelligence to be shared more efficiently. But he said that "Nirvana" would never be achieved -- that "the system, no matter how hard we work at it, we're simply not going to bat 1,000. ... We are people who, constitutionally and culturally, attach a premium to our privacy." Clapper said he was always wrestling with the dilemma of "how do we make sure our agencies have the flexibility and agility they need to address threats inside the U.S. when the Constitution is designed to [protect civil liberties]."

Like DNIs before him, Clapper promised to try to make his relationship with the congressional intelligence committees "positive." He expressed some concern that the Government Accountability Office, which now has some authority to investigate programs inside the intelligence community, might interfere in the relationship between the congressional oversight committees and the DNI, but said that he welcomed their work, "so long as it does not get to the core essence" of intelligence work.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, where Clapper spoke, is the home in exile to the former chairs of the 9/11 commission, which recommended that the FBI concentrate on developing an intelligence capability rather than create an additional intelligence agency along the lines of MI5.

Congress took that suggestion; five years later, there have been few public events devoted to assessing whether it has worked. What the public knows of the FBI's National Security Division, of domestic intelligence collection and of how laws and policy interact, has been limited to information derived from congressional hearings and inspectors general reports. The U.S. homeland has been attacked twice by would-be al-Qaeda-linked  terrorists and twice by homegrown extremists. 
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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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