Obama Administration and Senators in Standoff Over Clapper Nomination for Intelligence Czar

James Clapper, President Obama's nominee for director of national intelligence, listens to Obama's announcement in the White House Rose Garden on June 5. Saul Loeb / AFP-Getty Images

‪The Obama administration and the Senate intelligence committee are engaged in a high-stakes confrontation in which senators appear likely to slow-roll the confirmation of Pentagon official James Clapper as director of national intelligence until the administration helps the committee push through a stalled intelligence-authorization bill. Both houses of Congress have passed similar versions of the legislation, which is aimed at improving congressional oversight of spy agencies and bolstering the powers of the intelligence czar's office. But by posing objections—some of them backed up with veto threats—to various provisions, White House officials held up the legislation for months. One proposal Obama aides are objecting to would give the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, more authority to investigate spy agencies. Another would require agencies to more thoroughly brief all intelligence-committee members about highly sensitive secret activities, rather than limiting such briefings to a handful of congressional leaders (often known as the "Gang of Eight").

Two congressional officials familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity when discussing politically sensitive information, said that after months of negotiations, officials and members of both the House and Senate intelligence committees believed they had reached private agreements on a final bill that would be acceptable to both congressional chambers and the White House as well. However, progress on the legislation is still moving at a glacial pace. Intelligence-committee leaders want the White House to use some of its clout to help them win final passage for the authorization bill, which will be the first legislation Congress has passed shaping rules for intelligence activities in more than five years. Another obstacle to passage is an unsigned memo, raising objections to 17 points in the authorization bill, which congressional officials say was sent to the Senate and House armed-services committees in April by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, which Clapper currently runs.

Neither Congress nor the Pentagon so far has indicated a willingness to release this document, which officials say is unclassified and does not have Clapper's signature directly on it. However, the memo is described by people who have read it as a series of objections to various provisions in the authorization legislation that would expand the authorities of the national intelligence director's office over high-spending defense intelligence agencies like the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, thereby watering down power that the defense secretary and his intelligence undersecretary—currently Clapper—have to manage and set budgets for those agencies.

The memo has infuriated key intelligence-committee members, who view it as an attempt by the Pentagon in general, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Clapper in particular, to sabotage committee efforts to bolster the intelligence czar's authority over defense agencies by going behind the committee's back to rival congressional committees. One of the principal issues hampering efforts of the national intelligence director's office to improve cooperation between competing spy agencies has been the apparent weakness of its mandate to manage the operations and budgets of Pentagon-run intelligence agencies like the NSA, the NRO, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (the latter two of which were once run by Clapper). Officials indicated it was Clapper's alleged involvement in providing the controversial memo to Congress that Senate intelligence-committee GOP vice chairman Kit Bond was referring to when, shortly before Clapper was formally nominated to the intel-czar job on Saturday by Obama, Bond issued a statement saying that based on current information, he was likely to vote against Clapper's promotion. Bond said cryptically that Clapper had "recently blocked our efforts to empower the DNI." He also complained that Clapper "lacks the necessary clout with the president [and] has proven to be less than forthcoming with Congress." (The Pentagon memo's existence was first reported on Foreign Policy magazine's blog The Cable, which said it had been informed by a White House official that the document was an "information paper" requested by the House Armed Services Committee and prepared by Clapper's staff, which does not represent Clapper's overall personal opinion about the role and responsibilities of the DNI position.)

Although congressional sources say she is probably already under heavy administration pressure to back Clapper's nomination, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the intelligence committee's chair, issued a statement on the nomination on Tuesday that was notable for the absence of a promise to back Clapper. Feinstein said she planned to meet with Clapper in the next couple of days and that her committee was preparing questions for his confirmation hearings. She continued: "I intend for the committee to do its due diligence on General Clapper's nomination, as we do for all nominees. I am particularly interested in his views on the powers of the DNI, the appropriate role of the DNI with respect to agencies within the Department of Defense, and his views on the importance and appropriate role of congressional oversight of intelligence." Feinstein added: "I believe that any DNI will be effective only if he has the authority—both on paper and in practice—to oversee and have strategic direction over the 16 agencies that make up the Intelligence Community. I am very much in favor of a strong DNI, which I believe to be essential to national security."

As we reported here, Feinstein and Bond both previously expressed opposition to Clapper's promotion to the intelligence-czar post. Some congressional officials say that while the two senators are likely to let formal elements of the Senate confirmation process proceed, a vote on the nomination by the intelligence committee is likely to be stalled until the administration makes unambiguous and forceful efforts to ensure that the committee's pending authorization bill passes both houses and is signed by the president.