James Clapper with President Obama shortly after being nominated for the post of Director of National Intelligence. He would be the fourth person in the job since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
James Clapper with President Obama shortly after being nominated for the post of Director of National Intelligence. He would be the fourth person in the job since it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Evan Vucci/AP
It's a job almost no one thinks can be done.
Yet Tuesday on Capitol Hill, retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper will make the case for why he's the man to do it.
The job is director of National Intelligence — the post atop all 16 U.S. spy and intelligence agencies.
The position was created in 2004 as one of the cornerstones of changes designed to repair the intelligence community after the shortcomings exposed by the Sept. 11 attacks.
But it's not clear whether the big fix has worked.
So when Clapper testifies before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday afternoon, senators will want to know if anyone can do the job.
Talking with intelligence insiders about the reforms after Sept. 11, a lot of the same words come up again and again: collaboration, cooperation, communication, coordination.
The magic "C" words, collaboration and coordination, are what most agree was missing in the story of why the intelligence community failed on Sept. 11, 2001.
"One of the things described in the narrative was stovepiping of information, the inability or the inadequacy of information flowing across peoples' bureaucratic lines," says Paul Pillar, who spent nearly three decades at the CIA.
"So what did we do? We created more bureaucratic lines with the establishment of the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the office of the National Counterterrorism Center."
The director of National Intelligence: Turf wars and lack of authority have made this the most important job in America that no one seems to want.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates turned down the job when it was first created. In just five years, three people have held the position. Clapper would be the fourth.
"I don't think that we've ever established the office of the DNI in the way that we had hoped it would happen," says Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Republican from Michigan who helped design the 2004 intelligence overhaul.
He says the DNI was given responsibility without the necessary clout.
"No one's been able to come in and establish that as a critical function within the president's circle of advisers," Hoekstra says. "We need to establish the DNI as a strong independent voice within the president's circle. We're not there yet."
Here's another problem: Agencies like the CIA — used to calling their own shots — see the DNI as a competitor. Tom Fingar saw that up close as the deputy director of the DNI under the Bush administration.
"Part of the problem is the continuing animosity of some individuals, organizations that hope the DNI is a passing fad, can be made to fail and things will go back to the halcyon days of yore when the director of central intelligence was in charge," Fingar says.
"If we needed someone to coordinate more and have more authority over the whole intelligence community, we already had that job," says Pillar. "It was called director of central intelligence."
Pillar doesn't pine for the good old days, but he does think the CIA director could have been given more authority over budgets and personnel — without creating another layer of bureaucracy.
"Of course, that would not have been politically feasible after 9/11," Pillar concedes. "It would have been seen as a reward for the CIA rather than as punishment."
U.S. intelligence officials say despite all the problems with the intelligence reforms, things have improved.
The president's daily intelligence briefing now incorporates work by all 16 intelligence agencies, not just the CIA. Training programs for analysts have been standardized. And the DNI has created something called "analytic space" — A space, for short.
It's an online forum where every day roughly 1,000 intelligence analysts post, share and evaluate each other's data.
"There is absolutely no question that the amount of collaboration is far more extensive than it ever was in the 38 years that I spent in the intelligence community," CIA veteran Pillar says.
Intelligence experts say there's little appetite in the government for any more major surgery to fix the intelligence community, so if confirmed, Clapper will have to work with the system he'll inherit.
That system will never be perfect, Pillar says.
"No matter how hard we try to reform the way we do business in government, there is an irreducible minimum of harm and threat that we simply cannot abolish," Pillar says. "We can reduce it, we can learn lessons and make adjustments ... but we cannot eliminate it."