Can Clapper Hunt?

The word in Washington is that General James Clapper, President Obama's nominee for DNI, is in for trouble during his confirmation hearings. One issue seems to be his military uniform (despite the fact that it has been hanging, for some years now, in his closet). In a world in which diplomatic challenges abound from the Korean peninsula and relations with China, to Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Mexico, can a military man help hunt diplomatic foxes? In war zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomacy is crucial to countering terrorists and insurgents. The objective may be not just to eliminate targets, but to influence how they react and where they go. In this context, Obama's nomination of a military man for DNI seems risky. But is this really so? Does good intelligence support--whether diplomatic, military or law enforcement related--require a particular kind of resume?

History suggests not. Before U.S. entry in WWII, when FDR wanted to know how Britain was bearing up politically and psychologically as well as militarily in the face of the Nazi onslaught, he sent William Donovan, a former military man, to find out. Donovan's military background counted for little with the military services, who wanted non-interference in their operations. But Donovan turned out to be better at appreciating the overall situation and the president's needs than the civilian ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, who was unabashedly defeatist and at odds with his boss. Similarly, when curious about the military capabilities of Germany, Italy and Japan, FDR turned to his friends in industry. Thanks to American neutrality, they were busy trading with the axis powers and learning quite a lot about them in the process. President John F. Kennedy's CIA chief, John McCone, who correctly appraised the Kremlin's military moves during the Cuban Missile Crisis, also came from industry. In all these cases, success lay in acumen for the business, including how to put together a sound and trusted intelligence system, not in employment history.

But perhaps the best example is a more recent one. During the aftermath of the first Gulf War in the 1990s, the State Department found its requirements for intelligence eclipsed by the new emphasis on intelligence support to military operations (SMO). In response, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research launched "Support to Diplomatic Operations" or SDO. The idea was to bolster real-time, field-based support to those civilian officials influencing policy and doing shuttle diplomacy in the Balkans. State blatantly aped the Pentagon's innovative National Intelligence Support Teams (NISTs) that had proved so successful in Iraq. These teams had fused all-source intelligence on a priority basis for field-based commanders during the first Gulf War. State followed the same protocol to establish a Diplomatic Intelligence Support Center or DISC that was supported by all national collection agencies, including those under DoD leadership.  The DISC was prized by the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, John Menzies, and won a presidential award for its effectiveness.

The inspiration for this mimicry came not from a civilian, but from General James Clapper. Clapper understood the State Department's dilemma, attended the first brainstorming session at State and boldly backed the Defense Department's NIST model as a solution.

Clapper's response surprised none of the intelligence professionals around the table. Intelligence is about finding and keeping information advantages that keep American interests safe. In the business of intelligence, as in chasing foxes, what matters is not the breed or color of the horse, but whether he can hunt. General Clapper hunts.