In the two weeks since President Obama appointed Retired Air Force Lt. General James R. Clapper, to be director of national intelligence (DNI), there’s been a slew of speculation about his long record in U.S. intelligence and how it might affect his chances for confirmation.
Most of it has focused on the bipartisan opposition to Clapper in Congress. Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Kit Bond (R-MO), the co-chairs of the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with a few lawmakers in the House, have criticized Clapper for being too close to the Pentagon and without the gravitas to carry out the tough job of running the vast 16-member Intelligence Community. “He has not been in favor of a strong DNI,” declared Feinstein, citing a memo Clapper’s staff drafted for her committee earlier this year. The White House disputes the characterization.
Clapper, who is currently undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, has also been attacked for being too close to the Bush administration during the two years he served as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). Shortly after Clapper’s nomination as DNI, the Washington Times’ Eli Lake unearthed a 2003 interview in which Clapper argued — to the later delight of Karl Rove — that Saddam Hussein had indeed smuggled WMD materials out of Iraq. His conclusions drew whoops of derision from some liberals, who jumped on the interview as evidence of Clapper’s alleged fealty to the Bush-Cheney war strategy (“A batshit insane statement,” said the ever-acerbic Firedoglake).
None of these portrayals, however, gets to the two most important aspects of Clapper’s career: his ties to the $50 billion intelligence contracting industry, and his role in both developing and deepening the secret intelligence wars initiated by George W. Bush and intensified by the Obama administration.
Privatization of Intelligence
As I first reported in my 2007 book Spies for Hire, 70 percent of the intelligence budget flows to the private sector. Most of that money goes to around 200 contractors that supply personnel, security, and technology to U.S. spying agencies (the office of the DNI confirmed the 70 percent figure in 2008). When Clapper speaks, euphemistically perhaps, of the intelligence “enterprise” — “We have the largest, most capable intelligence enterprise on the planet, and it is the solemn, sacred trust of the DNI to make that enterprise work,” he said in when he accepted Obama’s nomination this month — he is talking about the total intelligence force — that is, the armies of contractors that staff the agencies, and the government officials and “intelligence professionals” who manage them.
Thus, Clapper doesn’t lean toward either the Bush or Obama foreign policy agendas, nor does he fit into neat categories of left or right. Instead, he represents a continuation of the heavily contracted, military-driven intelligence policies of the last six years. And he is totally in synch with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who represents the continuity between the national security agendas of George Bush and Barack Obama.
Indeed, Clapper and Gates may be this administration’s strongest proponents of the way intelligence is used in today’s wars: secret operations that combine all aspects of spying — human, signals, and geospatial — with close cooperation from the CIA and the highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command. The recent story in The Washington Post that “secret” operations are expanding worldwide confirms how deeply embedded this counterinsurgency strategy is in the Obama administration. The ongoing Predator war in Pakistan — carried out by CIA drones and fed target information by U.S. intelligence operatives — is the latest example of this new style of warfare, which even the United Nations is beginning to question because of the extreme secrecy of the program.
Clapper has been deeply involved in the synergies between agencies and contractors that make such counterinsurgency campaigns possible, and has worked for and advised many of the companies that profit from Obama’s intelligence wars. Moreover, as someone with close ties to industry, Clapper is comfortable with contractors at the highest level of U.S. intelligence, including the extremely controversial area of interrogations.
In a 2007 incident that I recount in my book, Clapper was asked by a Senate committee (which had the scandal of Abu Ghraib on its mind), to explain in writing the “proper role” of contractors in interrogation. “I believe it is permissible for contractors to participate in detainee interrogation, as long as they comply with the policies and guidance which govern DOD military and civilian interrogators,” he replied. Surprisingly, Mike McConnell, who was Bush’s DNI and a contractor himself, answered quite differently, telling the same committee: “I can’t imagine using contractors for anything like that.”
Clapper, of course, is far from alone: Almost every senior intelligence official over the past five years has had strong ties to contractors. McConnell, who directed the National Security Agency during the Clinton administration, came to the office of the DNI straight from Booz Allen Hamilton, where he was in charge of the company’s extensive contracts in military intelligence; he’s back there now, doing the same job. And John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and his chief spokesperson on intelligence matters, left the CIA in 2005 to join The Analysis Corporation, a major contractor that built the terrorist database and no-fly list used by the government to monitor foreigners entering the country.
Inside the Enterprise
To better understand what Clapper might mean by the term “intelligence enterprise,” it’s important to look at how agencies and companies have worked together. Take the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which Clapper took over two days after 9/11 and ran for the next five years. It is a key player in the intelligence wars, providing overhead imagery and mapping tools that allow intelligence and military analysts to monitor events from the skies and space and find exact locations of targets.
What gives the NGA its power to pinpoint locations of people is its close working relationships with the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors communications of all kinds. As the NGA itself once explained, these collaborative relationships allow “horizontal integration” between the two agencies, defined as “working together from start to finish, using NGA’s ‘eyes’
and NSA ‘ears.’” As I reported in Salon:
This makes it possible for spying agencies to create hybrid intelligence tools that enhance the ability of U.S. forces in combat. By combining intercepts of cellphone calls with overhead imagery gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), for example, intelligence analysts can track suspected terrorists or insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan in real time. The full capabilities of such tracking became clear in 2007, when then-NGA Director Robert B. Murrett disclosed that NSA-NGA tracking allowed the U.S. military to locate and bomb the safe house where Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, was staying in June 2006. “Eventually, it all comes down to physical location,” he told a press gathering that I attended. When NSA and NGA data are combined, he added, “the multiplier effect is dramatic.”
Most of the data collected by the NGA and NSA is analyzed by the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and maintains the U.S. fleet of spy satellites and operates the ground stations to process NSA signals and NGA imagery. At these stations, intelligence officials say, the “magic on the ground” — that combination of imagery and intercepts that can track events and people in real time — is taking place. In 2006, then-NRO Director Donald Kerr described the collaboration. At one “unknown ground station,” he said at a conference I attended, “we are integrating data that comes from our entire U.S. SIGINT system, from imaging capabilities and other space assets, and doing it to a cell at that ground station, which is empowered to other tasking as well. We’re doing real-time collection, fusion and tasking modifications to get a better intelligence effect.”
The NGA, NSA, and NRO together eat up about $20 billion of the nation’s annual $60 billion intelligence budget and employ huge numbers of contractors. Of the NGA’s 14,000 workers, for example, more than 7,000 are full-time contractors. About one-third of the NSA’s 35,000-person workforce is made up of contractors. And at the NRO, the figures are astonishing: “Ninety-five percent of the resources over which we have stewardship in fact go out on a contract to our industrial base, and it’s an important thing to recognize that we cannot function without this highly integrated industrial government team,” Kerr once told reporters. Put these agencies together, and contractors make up the vast majority of the workforce that supplies the most precious — and expensive — intelligence controlled by the national security state.
Several contractors, including SAIC and CACI International, claimed partial responsibility for the takedown of the Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Since then, of course, the intelligence-driven style of warfare, particularly in Pakistan, has intensified under the overall management of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command. Other contractors involved in the “enterprise” include Blackwater/Xe, L-3 Communications, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Booz Allen Hamilton (to track these and other companies, see the database I’ve developed on the intelligence industry with CorpWatch).
Clapper’s Ties to Industry
As NGA director, Clapper worked closely with the NGA’s technology and personnel suppliers, which are dominated by Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton, Raytheon, and the satellite vendor GeoEye, the world’s largest commercial satellite operator.
Then, almost immediately after leaving the agency, Clapper joined the GeoEye board of directors — a major coup for the company. “It’s like hiring Colonel Sanders if you’re selling fried chicken,” Mark E. Brender, GeoEye’s vice president for corporate communications and marketing, told me at the time. “We think he will provide very thoughtful strategic advice on where government money may be headed.” According to an AP biography, Clapper also served as a director for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the NGA’s largest contractors, and SRA International, a company that provides IT and counter-terrorism expertise to the NGA and other Pentagon intelligence agencies.
In my research for Spies for Hire, I also found that Clapper worked for DFI Government Services, a British-owned company making headway in the U.S. intelligence market, and an obscure company called 3001 International Inc., which describes itself as “a prime National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) contractor” that “has served Department of Defense clients with mapping and imagery analysis solutions for decades.” (It’s now owned by Northrop Grumman).
Like McConnell and Brennan, Clapper is also tightly linked to the largest business associations in the intelligence industry. He has been a frequent speaker at events sponsored by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, which was founded by the NGA’s leading contractors and sponsors the largest annual gathering of intelligence contractors in the country. In 2007, the USGIF awarded Clapper a lifetime achievement award; in 2008, Clapper delivered a keynote speechand gave a detailed interview to the foundation’s newsletter.
And, shortly after leaving the helm of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1999, Clapper served a two-year term as president of the Security Affairs Support Association, the largest organization of contractors for the NSA and the CIA. In 2005, it was renamed the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), and remains one of the least-known but most powerful organizations in U.S. intelligence. The centrality of INSA to the intelligence “enterprise” can be seen in its last two chairmen: the Bush administration’s Mike McConnell and Obama’s John Brennan.
The Gates-Clapper Partnership
Next to Obama, Clapper’s most enthusiastic supporter is Gates. He underscored his ties to Clapper on June 6, when he praised the nominee to traveling Pentagon reporters as someone with “not only long experience and familiarity with the intelligence world but the temperament to have the kind of constructive, positive chemistry with other leaders” of the IC. Once he’s confirmed, Clapper is likely to continue Gates’ policies to carefully reduce the Pentagon’s centralized control over intelligence while deepening its role in operations.
As pointed out by The Atlantic’s national security reporter Marc Ambinder, Clapper has a reputation as an independent actor who, as NGA director, actually sought to bring more civilian control over intelligence assets. In a famous incident in 2004, for instance, Clapper earned the wrath of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld by telling a Senate committee that the NGA’s work would be unaffected if the agency was removed from Pentagon control and placed under the DNI.
Gates, too, has been a proponent of a strong DNI. Even before he was sworn in he told a Senate confirmation hearing of his “deep unhappiness” about the “dominance of the Defense Department in the intelligence arena.” And once in office, he immediately set about to reduce the Pentagon’s footprint in spying. His first act as secretary of defense was to hire Clapper to replace the controversial Stephen Cambone, who had been Donald Rumsfeld’s undersecretary for intelligence. Clapper then moved quickly to dismantle some of Rumsfeld’s and Cambone’s prized programs.
Early on, he ordered a review of the Counter Intelligence Field Activity office, which Rumsfeld started in 2002 to monitor security around U.S. military bases in North America and quickly turned into a domestic surveillance organ. He also put an end to the Counterinsurgency Field Activity’s massive “Talon” database, which over a period of six years had compiled dossiers on thousands of U.S. citizens, including many hundreds of people merely exercising their rights to dissent. And in a move that brought the DNI right into the Pentagon, Gates signed an agreement with DNI McConnell designating Clapper as the office’s chief adviser on military intelligence. Slowly, bureaucratic power began to shift away from the Pentagon and back to the DNI.
Gates and Clapper showed their cards again in May 2007, when they “accepted” the retirement of Lt. General William Boykin. He was the Special Forces veteran who had described the “war on terror” as a holy crusade against the Moslem Satan; he had also overseen the Pentagon’s counterterrrorism operations as Cambone’s top military aide. Gates replaced him with Major General Richard Zahner, the NSA’s director of signals intelligence. This too sent a strong message: Boykin had been one of the biggest proponents of sending Pentagon intelligence collectors abroad to gather information for future military operations without informing the CIA, a practice that Gates and Clapper quietly ended in 2007.
As Gates and McConnell began to mend relations between their two organizations, and the corrosive rivalry between the Pentagon and the CIA began to subside in the last year of the Bush administration and the first year of Obama. U.S. intelligence policies, and relations between key national security agencies, began to return to the “normalcy” of earlier, pre-Rumsfeld years, with the civilians in charge of the intelligence enterprise.
The new arrangement greatly pleased the CIA. In 2007, then-CIA Director Michael Hayden praised Clapper for integrating CIA human intelligence with humint provided by the military services and the DIA. In a little-noticed speech to the National Guard Association, Hayden said this:
Jim (Clapper) is on the same wavelength of really strengthening Defense HUMINT and putting it on a solid footing and, frankly, the way things work, the more the guy in my chair, not as a director of CIA, but as the national HUMINT manager, puts his arm around Army, Marine, Navy, and Air Force HUMINT, the more that arm actually looks like a protective wing around this discipline and this function inside the military departments.
No wonder that CIA Director Leon Panetta, in endorsing the retired Air Force general for DNI, declared that “few people have more intelligence experience” than Clapper.
As they tilted the balance away from the Pentagon and back to the DNI and the White House, Gates and Clapper intensified their pursuit of important intelligence programs in IT and communications. These programs, involving information-sharing and integration of operations across agency lines, also happened to be areas where outsourcing has been most extensive.
But managing a privatized enterprise is second nature to both men. Clapper’s record is clear; less known is Gates’ history (After he left the CIA in the early 1990s, Gates he served as a director for SAIC, one of the largest contractors to the IC, as well as the intelligence contractor TRW, which is now part of Northrop Grumman.) As they work to create a new intelligence policy for Obama, these two men are watching over a huge market for intelligence contractors, with a total value of at least $50 billion. It will be intriguing to see if Clapper is asked about any of this in his confirmation hearings later this month — and how his ties to the Intelligence-Industrial Complex, which he likes to call the enterprise — will affect his decisions.