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Nominee for intelligence chief says he'd have enough clout

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Intel nominee: not a 'figurehead'
  • James Clapper is President Obama's nominee to be the director of national intelligence
  • Clapper tells the Senate Intelligence Committee the job has enough authority now
  • If confirmed, Clapper would be the fifth person in the job in five years

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama's nominee to be the new director of national intelligence said Tuesday he can succeed in the job without Congress legislating new authority.

James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, told his confirmation hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee that his role has the clout to oversee the nation's 16 intelligence agencies or programs.

In particular, Clapper said the DNI post he would assume has authority over the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, which has been in question in recent years.

"I would not have agreed to take this position on if I was going to be a titular figurehead or hood ornament," Clapper said of the job created after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an intelligence expansion to strengthen and better coordinate activities.

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There needs to be a "clear, defined, identifiable leader" of the intelligence community in order to "exert control over it," he said.

"With all of the discussion about the lack of authority, of the perceived weakness of the office of the director of national intelligence, I believe it already does have considerable authority, either explicit in the law ... or implicit that can be exerted," Clapper said, later adding: "It would be my intent to push the envelope ... on where those authorities could be broadened."

The DNI job has proven challenging, with four directors holding it since the position was created in late 2004.

If confirmed, Clapper would succeed Dennis Blair, who resigned under pressure in May after breakdowns in intelligence coordination revealed by two failed terrorist bombing attempts of U.S. targets -- an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day and in New York City's Times Square on May 1.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, noted the challenges in her opening statement at Tuesday's hearing, saying that the growth of the intelligence community has not led to improved performance.

"Clearly there is the need for a strong central figure, or the Balkanization of these 16 agencies will continue," Feinstein said, referring to the competing interests and lack of coordination among intelligence agencies as similar to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia into smaller competing states.

Clapper said that information sharing among intelligence agencies "continues to be a problem," noting the situation was better than before the 2001 attacks but still needs improvement.

In particular, he called for better computer technology in the form of "a very robust search engine that can range across a variety of data and data constructs in order to help connect the dots."

"I think we still are spending too much manpower to do manual things that can be done easily by machines," Clapper said. "If confirmed, that is an area I will pursue."

While some panel members, led by ranking Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, expressed reservations about Clapper before the hearing, there was little controversy or contentiousness during more than three hours of questioning.

Clapper agreed with assertions by committee members that in his role as DNI, he should ensure they have full access to timely intelligence updates including notification of terrorist attacks or credible evidence of possible attacks.

He also promised to be the strong leader needed to ride herd over the intelligence community, but stopped short of guaranteeing success.

"I'd be less than forthright if I sat here and said the intelligence community is going to bat a thousand every time, because we're not," Clapper said.

Asked about how to stop the so-called self-radicalized terrorists who convert to extremism on their own, Clapper said it was "a serious question that I don't have the answer for."

"To me, it's almost like detecting a tendency for suicide ahead of time," he said. "We cannot necessarily depend on intelligence mechanisms to detect that self-radicalization."

Asked about stories published in the Washington Post this week, Clapper said he disagreed with the perception of runaway waste and inefficiency in the intelligence community depicted in the reports.

"One man's duplication is another man's competitive analysis," Clapper said of the newspaper's assertion that there are excessive redundancies within the nation's intelligence agencies.

"That's not to say there isn't inefficiency and waste. There is," Clapper said, acknowledging the need to work to eliminate such problems.

On one hot-button topic, he sided with the rationale by the Obama administration for seeking to shut down the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, terrorist detention facility.

"I think that would help the image of the United States, if in fact we're able to close it," Clapper said. He made clear, though, that intelligence officials should only have a say in intelligence policy.

"As a general rule, I don't think that -- quote -- 'intelligence' should be in a policymaking role," Clapper said.

In written responses to a questionnaire submitted to the panel before the hearing, Clapper said North Korea's military poses "a threat that cannot be taken lightly."

"We may be entering a dangerous new period when North Korea will once again attempt to advance its internal and external political goals through direct attacks on our allies in" South Korea, he warned.

Feinstein had previously said she would not hold confirmation hearings for Clapper -- currently the Defense Department's chief intelligence officer -- until passage of a pending intelligence authorization bill.

The measure, which would strengthen the agency's position, has been held up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. Pelosi is seeking legal changes to ensure expanded congressional notification of certain sensitive intelligence activities.

An aide to Feinstein said last week the senator was forced to reverse her position because of the pending Senate August recess and the fact that David Gompert, the acting national intelligence director, plans to resign next month whether or not Clapper has been confirmed.

Clapper, who retired from the Air Force in 1995 after a 32-year career, served as head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from September 2001 to June 2006.

CNN's Pam Benson and Tom Cohen contributed to this report.