National Intelligence Job Comes With Turf Battles

President Obama's choice to be the next director of national intelligence will be the fourth man to hold that position in barely five years. James Clapper's nomination is raising questions about whether Clapper — or anyone — can effectively lead an intelligence community that includes 16 agencies and spans six Cabinet departments.

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President Obama, this weekend, introduced his nominee to be the next director of national intelligence. James Clapper, a retired Air Force general, would be the fourth director in the five years since the position was established. The idea was to centralize control over the vast intelligence apparatus. But Clapper's nomination is raising questions about whether he - or anyone - can effectively lead an intelligence community that includes 16 agencies and spans six Cabinet departments. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN: The high turnover among directors of national intelligence and the number of candidates who are said to have turned the job down show this is a challenging Washington position. Congress created a DNI as part of a big intelligence reform in the aftermath of 9/11. The belief was that the various intelligence agencies, from the CIA to the Pentagon and the specialty shops in other Cabinet departments, were all doing their own thing.

A single director, it was argued, should oversee all of them and force them to cooperate.

In his introduction of James Clapper on Saturday, President Obama seemed to agree. Intelligence, he said, must be collected and analyzed quickly, shared and integrated effectively, and acted upon decisively.

President BARACK OBAMA: In short, our intelligence community needs to work as one integrated team that produces quality, timely and accurate intelligence. And let's be honest, this is a tough task.

GJELTEN: The three men who have served in the DNI position so far have all found themselves in turf battles, largely with the CIA and the Pentagon. Retired Admiral Mike McConnell, the second DNI, says the problem stems in part from the law. He got the title of director of national intelligence but not the authority. No control over intelligence budgets, for example. McConnell thinks a new intelligence reform law may be needed.

Mr. MIKE MCCONNELL (Former Director of National Intelligence, Retired Admiral): The best course of action for the nation is to get the ambiguity in the law resolved. Now, you can make the DNI stronger or weaker. What I would be an advocate for is having a stronger DNI who can then, in effect, manage the community in the interest of the country.

GJELTEN: One of the authors of the law that created the DNI position, Senator Joe Lieberman, said in a statement, he anticipates working with James Clapper to see whether the position, quote, "needs additional authorities." In other words, more power written into the law.

But another author, Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, says the problem is the White House, not the legislation.

Representative PETE HOEKSTRA (Republican, Michigan): Regardless of how clear the law is or how unclear it is, you're going to have some turf battles and you need a president who's going to side with the director of national intelligence when these occur.

GJELTEN: Maybe James Clapper will get more White House support than Dennis Blair, his predecessor, got. Blair is said never to have established much rapport with President Obama. Clapper has four decades of intelligence experience. It's all been in Pentagon or military positions, but within the intelligence community, he is highly regarded.

He's now Defense Secretary Robert Gates' top deputy for intelligence. Gates spoke to reporters on his plane yesterday, and gave Clapper a glowing endorsement.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I think the president could not have found a better person, more experienced person or with a better temperament to do this job and actually make it work than Jim Clapper.

GJELTEN: Praise from the Defense secretary, however, could be a mixed blessing for Clapper. He'd be the third retired military officer to serve as intelligence director, and critics may question whether he'll be able to stand up to the Pentagon.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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