The Value of Advice and Consent: Clapper Nomination

I’m going to have more to say about James Clapper’s nomination to be Director of National Intelligence. But for now I want to point out similarities between how the Administration’s treated that nomination and its involvement in primaries.

Two things make James Clapper’s nomination anything but a done deal.

Most important to us little people is Clapper’s certainty in 2003 that we hadn’t found Iraqi WMD because Saddam managed to move all of them to Syria before US troops secured them.

The director of a top American spy agency said Tuesday that he believed that material from Iraq’s illicit weapons program had been transported into Syria and perhaps other countries as part of an effort by the Iraqis to disperse and destroy evidence immediately before the recent war.The official, James R. Clapper Jr., a retired lieutenant general, said satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March, led him to believe that illicit weapons material ”unquestionably” had been moved out of Iraq.

”I think people below the Saddam Hussein-and-his-sons level saw what was coming and decided the best thing to do was to destroy and disperse,” General Clapper, who leads the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, said at a breakfast with reporters.

Obama wants a man with a history of not questioning his own assumptions to take on a position invented, at least partly, to make sure the intelligence community questions its assumptions to prevent failures like 9/11 and the Iraq War.

The more important problem to the Senate Intelligence Committee–that is, to those with a vote on the matter–is that Clapper has a history of advocating for continued strong military control over intelligence functions, a view that puts him at odds with Dianne Feinstein and Kit Bond and others on SSCI. As Josh Rogin reports,

Yesterday, we reported that the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee were resisting the nomination of James Clapper to become the next director of national intelligence because he had argued in an April 28 memo against strengthening that very position.

Today, we have obtained a copy of the memo (pdf), which is entitled, “Discussion Draft: Provisions for FY2010 Intelligence Authorization Act that would expand DNI authorities over leadership and management of DOD’s intelligence components.”

The paper, written by Clapper’s staff, but not signed by Clapper himself, spells out 17 concerns that the Pentagon apparently had with the intelligence policy bill making its way through Congress. It’s clearly an attempt to defend the secretary of defense’s authority over defense intelligence agencies against what the memo’s writers see as encroachment by the Office of the DNI.


The administration sees Feinstein’s and Bond’s objections as part of their overall push for greater committee jurisdiction over defense department assets. For their part, Hill sources lament that Clapper’s memo seemed to be criticizing a bill that they thought had already been negotiated with the administration.

Regardless, Feinstein said she won’t move the nomination until her bill gets passed and her concerns are addressed. She meets with Clapper this week.

Read the whole Rogin post–and his earlier post on it–to understand why this is not just about a difference of opinion on the role of DNI and DOD in intelligence, but also about the Administration’s ongoing reluctance to allow Congress to exercise full oversight of the intelligence community.

The point is, the folks who need to approve Clapper’s nomination are none too thrilled about him and it will be very easy to spin a narrative about why he’s the wrong person for the job.

Clapper, having learned the lesson of Dawn Johnsen, refused to agree to the Administration’s request that he resign from his current position before being nominated.

The White House asked Director of Defense Intelligence James Clapper to step down from his job before nominating him as DNI, in order to help allay concerns about his military background. But Clapper politely refused. He does not want to be out of a job if his confirmation hearing doesn’t go well.

Clapper may have once believed in the tooth fairy and Iraqi WMDs in Syria, but he also may have a more realistic view of his chances than the Administration.

All of which is to say that the Administration picked a guy for a Senate-confirmed position while ignoring the strong possibility that the Senate really didn’t want to confirm him. Ambinder explains why the Administration settled on Clapper in spite of SSCI’s dislike for him as a candidate.

Not only was SecDef Robert Gates happy with Clapper’s appointment, he recommended Clapper after Obama’s preferred candidates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, passed on the job.

That is, Obama picked Clapper because no one else–the better candidates–would do the job.

But let’s recall how we got here. Clapper got nominated to be DNI because Obama ousted Dennis Blair some weeks back. There were definitely tensions between Blair and the Administration. But just as importantly, Blair served as a scapegoat for what was billed (rightly or wrongly) as an intelligence failure to prevent the Christmas Day undie-bomber attack. But remember–Blair wasn’t even the most appropriate person to pay for that failure; National Counterintelligence Center Director Michael Leiter was.

Now, several people–like Marc Ambinder and Jeff Stein–seem to think National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter should be the one canned over this report (and that’s even before you consider that Leiter went on vacation right after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack).

But Obama apparently wanted a big scapegoat, and rather than fix some inherent problems with the DNI position first, he decided to just get rid of Blair in hopes that a new, better DNI could fix those inherent problems.

Problem was, the Administration didn’t do the work of finding an acceptable replacement before chasing Blair out. It hadn’t, apparently, gotten agreement from the better candidates to take the job, and it clearly hadn’t gotten buy-in from even DiFi–Chair of the Committee that will handle the nomination–before picking a candidate she didn’t like.

That’s sort of like spiking the ball in the endzone to celebrate Blanche Lincoln’s runoff win (in spite of her crappy general election poll numbers), while ignoring all the money wasted on Ed Case’s and Arlen Specter’s electoral campaigns. Or, closer to my home, it’s like chasing John Cherry out of the primary to be Governor of MI, without first making sure we had a top-tier candidate to replace him (yeah, I’m increasingly worried that MI will elect Governor Crazy Pete this year).

Obama’s pick of James Clapper to be DNI is yet another example of the Administration assuming–without listening to the people on the ground, without talking to people with real equity and experience on the matter–that it knows best. Add in the fact that the Clapper nomination is also being rolled into the dispute between the Administration and Congress on real oversight of the intelligence community.

That’s not a surprise, mind you. Perhaps the biggest single weakness of the Obama Administration is that its members are just as certain of their own correctness as James Clapper was once certain that Iraq’s WMD were in Syria. So they’re none too good at doing things like arranging for a Plan B or consulting with those who know best before launching a plan.

But I did think it worthwhile to point out that they’re doing this both at the electoral level and with their nominations.

38 replies
  1. bobschacht says:

    Good morning, EW!
    Thanks for the behind the scenes look at this nomination.
    I think one of the major tasks of the new DNI ought to be undoing the Rumsfeldian sweep of intelligence functions into DOD, and the crippling(?) of all non-DOD intelligence gathering. If Congress really wanted to make the DNI work, they should give him/her some power over the budget of each and every one of the 16 agencies. Without that authority, the DNI is bureaucratically unmanageable.

    Bob in AZ

  2. BoxTurtle says:

    It would be nice if the senate would reject him as a matter of principle. But if they do, who will replace him? The top two have already turned the job down and ObamaLLP is not interested in anyone who supports congressional oversight.

    Boxturtle (What’s Skeletor doing these days?)

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, that’s sort of my point. Particularly given that this position has had to go to the only sucker willing to do this in the past (see also Negroponte, John), don’t you think they could have guessed it might not be the most attractive appointment in DC?

      • BoxTurtle says:

        Thinking about it, Sen. Burris is going to be looking for a job…

        Boxturtle (And so is Haggis…)

  3. Mary says:

    Can we expect a sternly worded letter from Feinstein?

    Seriously – in hearings you could always tell how good her staff was bc she had some of the best, most insightful questions, but then there was always the disappointing Nothingness of Diane behind them, while she went out and about having playdates with the likes of Hayden.

    All jmo, but I don’t believe that she cares about her bill, I don’t believe she cares about all the Americans and Iraqis who have died or about the drivel about Syria. I do believe that the Dems are realizing that in a lot of places, being Obama pushovers isn’t the surest route to votegetting. So manufacturing some “we stood up” moments is a political calculation for her.

  4. Mary says:

    BTW – is Josh Bolten going to be advising BP on how to ignore Congressional Subpeonas? It seems to have worked so well for him when Democrats were in power.

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Why bother to ignore the subpoenas? You give him a choice of three answers on a 3×5 card:

      1) I decline to answer on advice of lawyer.
      2) I don’t recall.
      3) Advice I may or may not have given the President is covered under executive privilege.

      Boxturtle (One presumes the committee has already been made aware of the amount of campaign money potentially impacted)

  5. Minnesotachuck says:

    Pat Lang is certainly unimpressed. Check out here and his latest post on Clapper here. Lang adds some worth-reading comments down-thread in the recent post, one of which alludes to the fact that he softened his earlier one.

  6. harpie says:

    EW: “The more important problem to the Senate Intelligence Committee–that is, to those with a vote on the matter–is that Clapper has a history of advocating for continued strong military control over intelligence functions, a view that puts him at odds with Dianne Feinstein and Kit Bond and others on SSCI.”

    Pentagon Tightens Grip on the Obama Administration and the Intelligence Community; Melvin A. Goodman; 6/8/10

    Once again, the president has appointed a general officer to an important strategic position that should be in the hands of an experienced civilian who understands the need for change.
    The [NY] Times also discussed Clapper’s ability to refashion and reorganize the intelligence community, without noting that the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence has veto power over the ability of the DNI to transfer personnel or budgetary authority from individual intelligence agencies into joint centers or other agencies in order to integrate strategic intelligence.
    Clapper is familiar with this problem even if the mainstream media isn’t; he served as undersecretary for intelligence for both Secretaries of Defense Gates and Donald Rumsfeld. At that time, moreover, he was responsible for managing the Counterintelligence Field Activities Office, which managed an illegal database that included information about antiwar protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting halls. Perhaps, some of these issues will be raised at his Senate confirmation hearings.

    I didn’t know Goodman, and found this:

  7. fatster says:

    Talk about celebrating Blanche Lincoln’s victory yesterday, check out Schumer’s reaction:

    “Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) held up two fists and said of her [Blanche Lincoln’s] primary campaign: “Fighting Wall Street with one hand, unions with the other.”

    I hope people in New York will forever remember he said this.

    • BoxTurtle says:

      Statewide, he might be able to get away with it. But I wouldn’t waste a lot of GOTV money in NYC from this point forward were I him. In NYC, even the unions have unions.

      Boxturtle (I bet he has problems with his trash pickup for awhile)

  8. TarheelDem says:

    I do believe that the DNI position has proved its uselessness. Abolishing it might be in order. The failure of DIA and CIA and the other 14 agencies to cooperate with each other will not be fixed with a supermanager. Gates apparently knows this and is making a play to pull the whole ball of wax functionally if not organizationally under DoD. Clapper is Gates’s puppet in the intelligence community.

    Obama has been so traumatized by the charge that he doesn’t respect the military that he is letting the military run foreign policy. Not a good idea. Especially if that military has as Secretary of Defense a general appointed by Bush.

    War or not, the entire US national security apparatus is due for an overhaul. And that will make it smaller so that it is spending more time doing its job of national defense and less time carrying out strategies against other agencies with which it should be coordinating. Sixty-three years is too long to go without an organizational overhaul.

    The entire DNI operation is a waste of taxpayer money and does not, provably does not, make us safer.

    • bobschacht says:

      The DNI is not a useless position, but it has been gelded by not giving the Director any power over the budget of the constituent agencies. If s/he had that power, then they’d sit up and take notice.

      Bob in AZ

  9. Garrett says:

    satellite imagery showing a heavy flow of traffic from Iraq into Syria, just before the American invasion in March

    Can’t say so for sure, not having seen the photos. But I think you call that “refugees”.

    I’d want my Director of National Intelligence to know about the existence of such a thing.

    And, if he makes a big mistake from not having learned about them, to at least own up to it. Has he?

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The logic that makes it imperative to make a civilian president head of federal armed forces applies equally persuasively to the appointment of the head of the national security apparatus.

    By far, the largest actor – by budget, resources, programs – in gathering raw data, whether signals or human intel, and in implementing “actions” – is the DoD. The head of national intelligence needs objective distance and divergent interests from his organization. He isn’t there to service the military; they are both there to do complementary and often conflicting jobs to service American interests.

    Being pressured by or hoping to get one over old pals in uniform (or on the Hill or in the White House), being beholden to giant corporations to whom the government has outsourced an enormous percentage of what ought to be its own work, are not characteristics that will improve the odds a DNI will be effective. They increase the odds he will be a self-serving apparatchik.

  11. JohnLopresti says:

    I would give DiFi a grade of B, at most. Panetta might not have been the best alternative to Clapper, either; though perhaps Clapper will make enough waves to provide some illustration of what an optimal configuration of dni might be, if the office is redesigned at some near-future time.. A few weeks ago, Stein wrote about Clapper’s work.

      • JohnLopresti says:

        Ok. I*ll give Leon a try at the post. ?Who would become his replacement at his then former outfit? This could become worthwhile. Maybe a few Vaughn indexes could be revised and promulgated anew. Sure might improve a few timeline documents archived on a prominent blog.

  12. JTMinIA says:

    I stopped reading for a while when I got to: “Feinstein said she won’t move the nomination until her bill gets passed and her concerns are addressed.”

    Man, I hate the way our gov’t works. If she has concerns about the actual nominee (which she should and probably does), then, fine, get those concerns addressed before voting on him. But the idea that she will hold a nomination hostage for a bill, regardless of whether that bill relates to the position for which the person has been nominated, is BS. And the fact that a congress-critter makes no excuse for doing this sort of thing – which they all do – is quite telling.

    • emptywheel says:

      Um, this bill is precisely related to the DNI position on the direction of intelligence. It is a perfectly logical move, particularly after having had her related concerns about Clapper ignored.

      • JTMinIA says:

        It’s relevant if the bill (if passed) would change the job so much that you can’t judge whether this nominee is qualified without knowing if the bill will pass. (For example, if this guy is qualified for the old version of the job, but not qualified for the new version [or v.v.], then you really can’t decide on the nominee without knowing if the bill will pass.) But, IMO, this reasoning only justifies not making the decision on the nominee until after the bill passes or fails. It does not justify holding the nominee “hostage” (which I read as: “we won’t vote on your nominee unless we get our bill passed” which is very different from “we won’t vote on your guy until we know whether our bill will pass”). Nothing justifies holding nominees hostage to a particular outcome on legislation. I’m very aware that that’s how thing often work in DC, but it’s BS.

  13. PJEvans says:

    OT but amusing (for certain values of amusement):
    GM has reportedly put out a memo to employees that they are no longer to refer to one of their makes as ‘Chevy’. From now on, it should only be called ‘Chevrolet’.

    (like that’s going to help them. /s)

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Only a phone guy would think that a smart of worthwhile use of his CEO time. “Branding” energy is all they have to distinguish them from their competitors, all of whom make their often mediocre products in the same Asian factories. Car guys, on the other hand, often spend more time worrying about how the rubber meets the road and how long it stays there.

      There is, however, a history of this crap at GM. Its marketing program was once reduced to the shorthand of “the 3 B’s” – boats, booze and babes. GM also tried unsuccessfully to convince customers there really was a difference between Pontiac, Chevrolet and their sister cars (other than how fast they rusted out).

      GM famously decreed once that all secretary/typists spell employee as “employe”, after its time-motion gurus concluded they could save millions by not having them type or have their co-workers read the second ending “e”. The time, money and persuasiveness lost in having millions of brains stop and silently re-spell the word correctly must never have occurred to them. Plus ca change.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      The NYT’s article on GM’s rebranding efforts says that GM is confused about the content of its Chevy brand. This looks remarkably like PR firm make-work, to justify the shift from car ad guys to phone ad guys. In many ways, this PR shuffle mirrors Team Obama’s focus on distraction over substance, whether it be Blanche or BP.

      Discarding the familiar, anglicized Chevy in favor of the formal, regal Chevrolet (no Buick pun intended), and forcing millions of people to reconsider their still fond memories of their Chevy experiences – whether under the hood or in the back seat – seem as unlikely to win new fans as Obama’s efforts to make it easier to drill offshore in the Gulf.

  14. fatster says:

    Intel nominee helped enrich contractors as ‘spy for hire’

    More “info” on Clapper. Assuming it’s all true, he is a doozy.


  15. b2020 says:

    Bygones knows best about everything, except health insurance, Big Oil, and the financial industry – in these cases, 11-dimensional bluster aside, he and his minions could hardly be more deferential and subservient to the “experts”.

    I guess it shows whose votes they consider relevant.

  16. Nell says:

    they’re doing this both at the electoral level and with their nominations.

    And with policy: the decision to support expanded offshore oil drilling is yet another example. They couldn’t have talked to anyone with any real expertise, or Obama would never have been able to pull his ridiculous “drilling doesn’t cause spills any more” b.s. Supposedly to get Lindsey Graham’s support on a climate bill — when it should have been clear Graham was never going to give that support, and the bill is weak tea crap to begin with.

    Sure hope they’re enjoying life in the bubble; they’re making no effort whatsoever to get outside it.

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