ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates rejected congressional criticism of President Barack Obama’s choice to lead the intelligence community on Sunday and said the power of the position is likely to remain more limited than some might hope.
Obama named retired General James Clapper, now undersecretary of defense for intelligence, to serve as the director of national intelligence after ousting Dennis Blair, an admiral who frequently clashed with the White House and the CIA during his 16-month tenure in the job.
Blair was ousted last month after a failed car bomb attempt in New York’s Times Square and a botched attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.
The intelligence director is supposed to oversee the agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, but critics say the post has never been given enough authority to be effective.
Clapper’s military background has rattled some of the lawmakers whose support he will need for Senate confirmation. That may increase the chances of his nomination being held up, a potential liability for Obama in an election year.
Some Democrats and Republicans on the congressional committees that oversee the intelligence community have objected to Clapper, complaining that he is too close to the Pentagon and is reluctant to share information.
Speaking to reporters on his plane, Gates countered that Clapper was “very independent-minded,” and has a “strong, long record of not only adherence to congressional oversight but support of it.”
Gates, who is close to Clapper, wrapped up a visit to Singapore and was due to arrive in Azerbaijan later in the day. He will then travel to Britain and Brussels.
Gates opposed the creation of a director of intelligence position in 2004 because he said he felt it would be “very complicated to make it work.” He was offered the job in 2005 but turned it down.
“I probably know more about this job and the difficulties it entails as anybody,” Gates said. “You know we have intelligence units in the Treasury Department, in the State Department and in all these other places. Those cabinet officers are not going to allow their intelligence components to be run by somebody outside their department.”
He said the job should not be seen as the equivalent of a corporate CEO because its executive powers are limited.
“I know that some are looking for a strong executive, a big boss, that tells everybody what to do,” Gates said. “But structurally that’s almost impossible with this job because virtually none of the heads of the 16 intelligence agencies actually work for the DNI.”
He said the director has to get intelligence agencies to work together voluntarily instead of “trying to command them to do things.”
Gates said he saw little chance of advancing proposals to further empower the intelligence director, such as by giving him authority over the intelligence community’s budget. “That would require new legislation and I don’t see that being in the cards at this point.”
Gates also said Clapper’s “temperament” was well suited to creating “constructive, positive chemistry with the other leaders of the intelligence community.”
Editing by Chris Wilson