WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean warship earlier this year may herald a “dangerous new period” of direct attacks by Pyongyang on the South, the retired general nominated to be U.S. President Barack Obama’s intelligence chief said on Tuesday.
The warning by James Clapper at his Senate confirmation hearing for director of national intelligence put a spotlight on growing concern within the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon about what they see as the North’s increasingly unpredictable behavior.
After weeks of delay, the United States and South Korea have announced the start of large-scale military exercises next weekend in a show of force, but defense and intelligence officials acknowledge they have limited options to get Pyongyang to change course.
Obama nominated Clapper, who currently serves as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, in June after he ousted Admiral Dennis Blair from the intelligence post.
Blair’s 16-month tenure was marked by bureaucratic turf battles with the CIA and the White House, and sharp criticism over the intelligence community’s failure to prevent a botched Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner.
Several key lawmakers have voiced concerns about Clapper’s nomination but congressional officials said they expected him to be confirmed. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, one of the critics, said she would try to move the nomination “as quickly as possible.”
Congress created the director of national intelligence post in 2004 to oversee the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, in response to lapses exposed by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But critics say the post has never been given enough authority to be effective.
At his confirmation hearing, Clapper played down the need for another intelligence overhaul, saying the current structure could be made to work more efficiently and that legislative changes were not necessary at this time.
He told Senate advocates of expanding the position’s powers that he believed it already had “considerable” authority. But he said he was prepared to “push the envelope” to extend his oversight to programing and financial management and would try to end inter-agency turf wars and increase cooperation.
“I am reasonably confident I can make this better,” Clapper said, but he called it unrealistic to expect the intelligence community to “bat 1,000” every time.
Tension between North and South Korea remain high following the March sinking of the warship, Cheonan, killing 46 South Korean sailors. Pyongyang has denied responsibility and escaped censure this month from the United Nations, which condemned the attack but, in deference to China, did not blame North Korea.
Clapper was a top U.S. defense official dealing with North-South tensions on the Korean Peninsula in the 1980s, at a time when he said violent provocations by Pyongyang were more common than during the last decade.
Clapper said the Cheonan attack and Pyongyang’s unsuccessful efforts to assassinate a senior North Korean defector reminded him of its bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987 in which all 115 passengers were killed.
“The most important lesson for all of us in the intelligence community from this year’s provocations by Pyongyang is to realize that 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 the Republic of Korea,” Clapper said in a written response to questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Coupled with this is a renewed realization that North Korea’s military forces still pose a threat that cannot be taken lightly,” he added.
If confirmed, Clapper would be the fourth director of national intelligence in 5 years.
It took the Senate Intelligence Committee nearly six weeks to take up the nomination, a reflection of unease among some Democrats and Republicans with Obama’s choice.
Critics say Clapper is ill-suited for the position because of his close ties to the Pentagon and what they see as a reluctance to share information with lawmakers.
Senator Kit Bond, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, questioned whether Clapper had the “horsepower needed in the White House” to exercise effective oversight.
Pointing to differences with Clapper over whether the director of national intelligence had enough authority, Feinstein said she believed “clearly there is need for a strong central figure or the balkanization of these 16 agencies will continue.”
Clapper, rejecting suggestions he was beholden to the Pentagon because of his decades in the military, said, “I would not have agreed to take this position on if I were going to be a titular figurehead or a hood ornament.”
Blair had clashed with the powerful director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, over authorities.
Clapper acknowledged “ambiguity” in defining the relationship, said he believed the director of national intelligence currently had the authority to overrule the CIA chief if they disagreed, but promised to work with Panetta on “mutually agreeable arrangements” setting out each official’s responsibilities.
All of the elements of the intelligence community “must be synchronized” to work properly and greater trust between Congress and the director of national intelligence was critical, Clapper said in a tacit acknowledgment of how relations have deteriorated.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham