White House Tries to Ease Senate Opposition to Intelligence Nominee

In an apparent effort to build support among powerful senators for the nomination of James Clapper as new national intelligence director, the White House has sent a letter to Capitol Hill confirming its support for an intelligence bill that had been stalled in Congress for months. As Declassified reported earlier this week, congressional officials have signaled that senators are likely to slow-roll Clapper's confirmation until after Congress finally passes, and the president signs, a long-pending intelligence-authorization bill that includes provisions intended to improve congressional oversight of secretive spy agencies.

In what appears to be an effort to break the logjam on both the intelligence bill and Clapper's nomination, on Thursday Peter Orszag, director of the White House–based Office of Management and Budget, sent letters like this one to the chairs and senior Republicans on the House and Senate intelligence committees, declaring that the Obama White House was now satisfied that Congress has tweaked the intelligence-authorization measure sufficiently to defuse any threats of a presidential veto. Earlier in the year, Orszag and other administration officials had sent letters and messages to Congress indicating that the president was likely to veto versions of the authorization bill that were under consideration on Capitol Hill. Those versions contained provisions the White House objected to that would have expanded congressional oversight powers, including clauses that would have given the Government Accountability Office, an investigative agency under congressional control, more power to investigate spy agencies, and would also have forced the White House to inform all members of congressional intelligence committees more extensively about some of the government's most sensitive intelligence activities. These are disclosures that under present law, the White House can limit to a group of congressional leaders, known as the "gang of eight."

In the letter he sent on Thursday, Orszag indicated that negotiations between Congress and the White House, and between the two houses of Congress, have produced a new draft authorization bill that all parties can live with and that the president would sign. "The final draft bill is a significant step forward from previous versions," Orszag wrote. Among the steps Congress took to alleviate White House concerns, Orszag said, were removing the provision giving GAO more power to investigate espionage activities, amending tweaks to congressional notification requirements to give the administration more flexibility, and giving the president power to avoid annual public disclosure of the total U.S. intelligence budget number if he thinks such a revelation would damage national security. The latest congressional draft also abandons earlier language that would have required congressional confirmation votes on nominees to head major Pentagon intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; currently appointments to the leadership of those agencies do not require congressional approval.

Following a meeting on Thursday with Clapper, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Senate intelligence committee chair, was reported by National Journal to have said that she still does not plan to act on Clapper's nomination until work is finished on the authorization bill. But Congressional Quarterly's online service reported that Feinstein, who had previously publicly questioned whether Clapper was the right candidate to replace the ousted Dennis Blair, also had appeared to soften her objections to Clapper's promotion. "If I analyze General Clapper correctly, I think he is a very loyal person," Feinstein said after her meeting with Clapper, adding: "I think the meeting went well."

Some congressional officials pointed out that nothing Feinstein said constituted a full-throated endorsement of Clapper's nomination as intelligence czar, and indicated this meant Feinstein might still need some persuading to back him. Some intelligence committee members, including the top Senate intelligence committee Republican, Sen. Kit Bond, are still understood to be steamed about a memo that the Pentagon sent to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees—historical rivals of the intelligence committees—in which the Defense Department objected to various provisions of the proposed intelligence-authorization bill that would impose new restrictions or requirements on Pentagon intelligence agencies. The full memo is posted on the Foreign Policy magazine Web site.

In an e-mail to Declassified earlier this week, a spokeswoman for Clapper claimed that the document was neither signed nor came from his office. But the spokeswoman did not offer any further information about the document, and congressional officials said they didn't believe that Clapper's office had no role in producing the memo.