The top Intelligence job in the national security arena has claimed another victim. Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and titular head of the Intelligence Community (IC), has announced plans to retire. Pundits suggest that his departure was not voluntary. Blair is seen as the fall guy for a string of recent Intelligence "failures," the most recent of which was an attempted bombing of Times Square on 1 May. Ironically, Blair has no line or budget authority over any of the sixteen disparate intelligence agencies, and as a former military officer, he doesn't have any political cover, either. More culpable line officials like Leon Panetta (CIA) and Janet Napolitano (DHS) are both well-connected Democrats and thus less likely to be called to account. A number of potential successors for Blair have surfaced, the most prominent of which is James Clapper. A former Air Force officer, Clapper is the current Undersecretary for Intelligence at DOD. Like Robert Gates, General Capper is a holdover from the Bush years and as such may not be a slam-dunk for the job. If credentials and experience mean anything, Clapper is well-prepared. He began his military career as a Marine Corps grunt, transferred to ROTC at the University of Maryland, and received a commission in the Air Force. He began his career as a signals (SIGINT) officer, and he has favored the technical side of Intelligence ever since. He served as a combat aviator in Vietnam and rose to command a wing at the National Security Agency (NSA). He went on to become the chief of Air Force Intelligence and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Clapper's distinctive contribution to the Intelligence business is the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. This little-known technological wonder is the digital brains behind the American capability to locate, analyze, and target the enemy in real time. Indeed, this geo-strategic identification and strike capability is the new "gold standard" -- a unique American intelligence capability.
Officers like Clapper are known as "mustangs," soldiers with pedestrian bloodlines who rise through the ranks. He was a former enlisted man, he did not go to an elite university, and he did not graduate from one of the prestigious military academies. In short, he is not a "ring knocker," not one of those military academy graduates with a sense of entitlement to promotions. Jim Clapper is a classic American success story and, unlike most of his contemporaries, a genuine Horatio Alger.
So why in the name of rationality would he want the worst job in Washington? The DNI has no real line authority and no budgetary means to control events in subordinate Intelligence agencies. General Clapper's motives will be examined in detail if he appears before Congress for confirmation. Beforehand, the long knives on the Hill and in the press are already evident. Several politicians have already suggested that they would prefer the likes of Leon Panetta or some other well-wired party loyalist. Those who argue for politicized managers seldom mention the fiasco cooked up by the ever-sentient former CIA Director, George Tenent, for the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq -- an "analysis" that was later used as the basis for Colin Powell's disastrous and disingenuous presentation at the U.N. in 2003. A faux controversy over DIA (1992-1995) is already evident. In the early '90s, Clapper tried to reorient the analytical focus from area studies to more technical intelligence concerns -- e.g., weapons systems. Consistent with his background, Clapper presumed to think that Intelligence ought to focus on the things it does well. If he believes that geo-strategic navel-gazing and wishful thinking are better done elsewhere, he is probably right and politically incorrect at the same time. Recent NIEs on Iraq and Iran provide more than ample evidence to support any skepticism about geopolitical analysis that Clapper might have had. He may not have made poor decisions at DIA, but he did make enemies. The analytical controversy is sure to accompany Clapper to his confirmation hearings if and when he is nominated. Critics hail from an agency that was formed from the detritus of the military intelligence agencies -- four stovepipes that DIA was supposed to supersede. Yet the Service intelligence agencies and DIA survive today -- not without rancor. From the beginning, DIA was known within DOD as a "mushroom" factory, a moniker consistent with the original workspace in the basement of the Pentagon. When most employees moved to Bolling AFB, cynics rechristened DIA the "death star," an allusion to the fate of some careers and the black glass monolith which serves as the new workspace. Fools may be suffered gladly at DIA, then as now, but change was seldom among them. If and when Clapper takes the hot seat on Capitol Hill, a host of challenges other than petty critics await: centralization of Intelligence authority, analytical competence, redundancy, duplication, community size, politicization, and the growing sense that the Intelligence Community just doesn't work -- that it's a leviathan too big to succeed. Jim Clapper is known to be an advocate of centralized line authority and an enemy of bureaucratic duplication. He favors focused analysis and the challenge of making heretofore disparate factions come together synergistically. Although he is known as a chap who plays well with others, Clapper's ability to swim with political sharks like Panetta, Napolitano, and John Brennan (White House homeland security advisor) is still a cipher. Beyond loyalty, none of the latter three have shown any flair for national security performance other than party lines and political correctness.
In many ways, the Intelligence Community is the product of Lincoln Log engineering: Each crisis or failure seems to generate more spending, more bureaucracy. With no political axes to grind, Jim Clapper could deftly wield a stiletto and reshape a leaner and meaner national security community, where competence, not size or spending, becomes the dominant idiom.
The appointment of a new DNI is also a test for the administration, a test to see if the White House is serious about improved performance. The White House may offer line and budget authority as an incentive for the next candidate, knowing that only Congress can deliver on such a promise. Many on the Hill harbor reservations about Intelligence "czars," and more than a few opposed the idea of DNI to begin with.
If General Clapper is nominated, he will come in as a mustang, a scrapper who made the most of modest beginnings. He knows the business, and he is not afraid to rock the boat. He has the street credentials, integrity, and independence to remold institutions sorely in need of diet and sharper focus. If he takes the job with no assurances of getting line and budget authority, he will, unfortunately, go down in history as just another gelding coursing through the Intelligence Community, an inscrutable "wilderness of mirrors."
The author is the former Director of Research and Russian Studies (aka Soviet Awareness), Bolling AFB; he served under General Clapper when Clapper was the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, HQ USAF. The author also served two tours with DIA.