Memo on Intel-Czar Power Complicates Clapper Nomination

A Pentagon memo suggested that a proposal by the congressional armed-services committees to require the intelligence czar's office to count the number of foreign-language linguists in each U.S. intelligence agency would usurp the managerial authority of the secretary of defense, Declassified has learned. The unsigned and unclassified memo, which was sent to the committees in April, but which neither the recipients nor the Pentagon have so far been willing to release, has now become a potentially serious obstacle to efforts by the Obama White House to win Senate confirmation for retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper as director of national intelligence. Clapper, currently Pentagon undersecretary for intelligence, was nominated to succeed the ousted Dennis Blair.

Two intelligence officials familiar with the memo's contents, who asked for anonymity when discussing politically sensitive information, said that the Pentagon laid out objections to 17 specific proposals which were contained in various versions of intelligence authorization bills currently being considered by the House and Senate.

The two officials said that one of the proposals to which the Pentagon raised objections would order the national intelligence director's office to conduct a survey that would catalog the number of linguists in each of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and which languages they were proficient in. Intelligence experts for years have been concerned that the federal government does not have enough competent linguists and that this has hampered the government's ability to foil or track down terrorist plots. The idea behind the intelligence committee's proposal was to help both the intelligence czar's office and Congress understand where the government's linguists are now, and whether their current assignments are optimal for the challenges U.S. agencies are presently facing.

According to the two officials, however, the Defense Department indicated in the memo that it objected to the intelligence czar being ordered by law to catalog which agencies had experts in which languages, on the grounds that such an order would "interfere" with the authority of the defense secretary to manage his own department. One of the officials said that the rationale for this objection would be that the defense secretary and other cabinet secretaries are supposed to report directly to the president, and that any attempt by Congress to order a cabinet secretary to be subordinate in any way to another official—such as the national intelligence director—would interfere in the historical relationship between the cabinet officer and the president.

However, the two intelligence officials acknowledged that one of the reasons why Congress created the intelligence director's office was that, in the wake of the discovery of lapses in the sharing of pre-9/11 intelligence between rival agencies, Congress wanted a single official to have the power to force competing agencies to share and to allocate their resources in a way which would best enable the government to thwart current threats. But ever since the post was created, intelligence experts have described the intelligence czar's powers as murky and open to question. When Obama recently ousted his first intelligence czar, retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, experts noted that Blair's political clout, and thus management authority, seemed to wither in the aura cast by more powerful administration personalities, including Defense Secretary Bob Gates, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.

One of the biggest concerns about the weakness of DNI authorities has, since the post was established, related to how much budgetary and management authority the intelligence czar would have over spy agencies that are part of the Defense Department. These agencies, including the National Security Agency, which runs a vast electronic eavesdropping network, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates spy satellites, consume huge piles of taxpayer cash that dwarf the budgets of smaller agencies like the CIA and FBI. But the DNI's authorities over the defense spy agencies have been unclear. Congressional experts describe the Pentagon memo as an example of how the Defense Department has pushed back against efforts by DNI to assert more authority over defense agencies. Some intelligence officials describe the Pentagon objection to the proposal that DNI conduct a survey of linguists as particularly outrageous.

The memo was only sent to the armed-services committees even though it related to legislation pending before the intelligence committees, which is regarded by the latter as an attempt by the Pentagon to go behind the intelligence committees' backs and sabotage a useful, bipartisan intelligence reform bill that Congress has been trying to pass for years. Even though his signature is not on it, congressional officials say that since it relates to Pentagon intelligence authorities, the memo had to have come from somewhere in or through the office of the Pentagon's current chief intelligence official—Clapper.

When Declassified asked a spokeswoman for Clapper about the document, however, she claimed that the document was neither signed nor came from his office. But the spokeswoman did not offer any further information about the document. Other Pentagon spokespeople to whom she referred Declassifed did not immediately offer further comments. A congressional official said that the authorization bill provision ordering the intelligence czar's office to conduct a census of spy agency linguists is still in a draft of the bill which has tentatively been approved by leaders of both congressional houses.

Another U.S. national-security official, who also asked for anonymity, said that under existing legislation outlining the powers of the intelligence czar's office, not only are they murky with regards to DNI's authority over the Pentagon, but the DNI also has no specific authority to "task" any particular agency or personnel to work on any specific project or assignment.