Political Notebook

Fight looms over intelligence chief

“Let’s be honest — this is a tough task,’’ President Obama said as he introduced James R. Clapper as his choice. “Let’s be honest — this is a tough task,’’ President Obama said as he introduced James R. Clapper as his choice. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
June 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON — He’s the right guy to ride herd over America’s intelligence operations. Or he’s a good guy, but the wrong one for that tough job.

Those warring opinions emerged about James R. Clapper after President Obama said yesterday that he wants the Pentagon’s current intelligence chief to serve as director of national intelligence — the fourth since the post was created in 2004 — and wants the Senate to confirm him quickly.

“Eminently qualified,’’ Obama described the blunt-spoken retired Air Force lieutenant general, offering his “complete confidence and support.’’

Those who know Clapper, 69, and have worked with him during his long career in public service say he’s never shied away from a fight. That’s just what he may get from senators who will decide whether to put him in a job that comes with an unforgiving mandate, as explained by Obama: ensuring the 16 spy agencies work “as one integrated team that produces quality, timely and accurate intelligence. Let’s be honest — this is a tough task.’’

A preview of the Capitol Hill obstacles? “He’s a good guy, but the wrong guy,’’ said the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri.

It’s a thankless job that has challenged the first three directors. Many intelligence and administrative experts believe the role was ill-conceived when it was set up as part of the post-Sept. 11 reforms in 2004.

Clapper would succeed retired Admiral Dennis Blair, who resigned after frequent clashes with the White House and other intelligence officials. Clapper has held the Pentagon intelligence job longer than expected, at the request of Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

A Vietnam veteran, Clapper once directed the Defense Intelligence Agency, which often works closely with the CIA. He was the first civilian director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes imagery such as satellite pictures or video taken from aircraft. In between, there were a few years in the private sector focusing on intelligence issues.

Gates likes Clapper, defense officials say, because he is known as always respectful, but always direct.

“He possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear,’’ Obama said in a Rose Garden ceremony yesterday.

In private, Clapper has faced off with lawmakers, sometimes resorting to colorful language to make a point. Those prickly relations may come back to haunt him as he awaits confirmation.

Bond said Clapper would be outmaneuvered in office, facing off against Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and CIA Director Leon Panetta. Brennan and Panetta have the president’s ear, and carte blanche entry to the Oval Office, Bond said.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate committee, has said it would be better to have a civilian in the intelligence job. Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Bond had called for Panetta to shift over.


Former federal employees swell financial lobby ranks
WASHINGTON — Even for Washington, the revolving door between government and Wall Street spins at a dizzying pace.

More than 1,400 former members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, or federal employees registered as lobbyists on behalf of the financial services sector since the start of 2009, according to an exhaustive new study issued Thursday.

The analysis by two nonpartisan groups, Public Citizen and the Center for Responsive Politics, found that the “small army’’ of financial lobbyists included at least 73 former lawmakers and 148 former congressional staffers connected to the House or Senate banking committees. More than 40 former Treasury Department employees also ply their trade as lobbyists for Wall Street firms, the study found.

Some of the biggest names highlighted in the study include former Senate majority leaders Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican; former House majority leaders Richard Armey, Republican of Texas, and Richard Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat; and former House speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

The revolving door is evident in almost every major issue that comes before Congress, from regulation of the coal industry to the auto industry to the health-care sector. But the sheer scale of the overlap within the financial sector is remarkable: For every sitting member of Congress, the new study shows, there are three former colleagues or government staffers lobbying on behalf of the banks.

David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, said “Wall Street hires former members of Congress and their staff for a reason,’’ especially at a time when lawmakers are debating an historic overhaul of the way Wall Street does business. “These people are influential because they have personal relationships with current members and staff,’’ Arkush said. “It’s hard to say no to your friends, but that’s what Congress needs to do.’’