Amid budget pressures and cybersecurity threats, Gen. James R. Clapper, Jr. took the reins of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Top GovCon leaders and national security experts reflect on Clapper, the industry and what to look for on the intelligence horizon.
He’s been called the godfather of human intelligence. A senior official in one of the 16 umbrella agencies of the Intelligence Community once likened the respect for him to that of Yoda, the wise and unruffled elder of “Star Wars” fame.
In June 2010, when President Barack Obama nominated Gen. James Clapper, a 45-year veteran of the Intelligence Community, from government, the military and the robust world of contracting to become the fourth director of national intelligence in five years, then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said he was “the right guy at the right time.”
And in his Senate confirmation hearings a month later, Clapper said he was ready to take the reins in a meaningful way. In a memorable turn of phrase, and in his characteristic frankness, he proclaimed he was no “titular figure or a hood ornament.”
Ellen McCarthy, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance think tank in Arlington, Va., knew Clapper by a different name: boss.
McCarthy worked as Clapper’s director of human capital management for three years while he was the undersecretary of defense for intelligence earlier in the decade.
But a lot of what has written about Clapper suits him, she said.
Clapper’s quest to continue gathering, collecting and managing information vital to national security, while facing an array of sophisticated, new threats — is a unique one, if only because the stakes are so high in a post-9/11 world.
But it’s also a moment of increasing belt tightening, budget cutting and efficiency making across the federal landscape, one that reaches nearly every agency’s bottom line, as reserves once thought bottomless begin to run dry.
“We’re in an environment where budgets are tightening,” said Tim Chase, a principal with Deloitte Consulting, “and (yet), there’s not a commensurate reduction in threats to our national security.”
As Clapper begins looking at ways to find efficiencies in the process, McCarthy sees a thoughtfulness she once encountered in a supportive boss who never failed to back her in a debate when she had a sound position.
She doesn’t hesitate to name his leadership qualities: He builds consensus and works well with others. And perhaps most important, he does not mask his opinions or true feelings, she said.
“You know where you stand, you know what he’s thinking,” she added. “There’s nothing to read between the lines.”
Since being confirmed in August to the role of director of national intelligence, Clapper had already rearranged the office, so to speak.
In his first major policy speech in October at the Bipartisan Policy Center, Clapper said he had already begun clarifying the “ambiguities” of his post. He had significantly streamlined his office, eschewing the four deputy directors allowed for by law in favor of two, including his principal deputy. And he announced his deputy director had taken on the duties of a chief operating officer to better manage the staff and internal operations.
The DNI position, created to foster cooperation and collaboration among the 16 agencies that collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence, was formed in 2004 following a recommendation by the 9/11 Commission.
Greg Young, president and CEO of defense technology firm ENSCO in Falls Church, Va., said the creation of the DNI post was “an essential first step” for integrated intelligence organization, which is achieved by agencies working together, often through information sharing.
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the disparate intelligence agencies often seemed to work more at odds with each other than collaboratively. Their reputation, at least, was that of agencies hoarding information in misguided attempts to protect it that carried the scent of a turf war.
“When President Obama asked me to lead this organization,” Clapper said at his confirmation hearing, “he said he wanted someone who could build the Intelligence Community into an integrated team… and be someone who would tell policymakers what they need to know.”
But ever since the creation of the position, observers have noted the dual nature of the job: running the intelligence enterprise, while also providing the president with up-to-date intelligence information at his daily intelligence briefing.
INSA’s Ellen McCarthy said those are two very different roles. Keeping the president informed is substantive, she explained, while enhancing coordination is a matter of process.
And that process is increasingly involving private industry.
At his confirmation hearings, Clapper said the growing presence of government contractors in the Intelligence Community was “in some ways, a testimony to the ingenuity, innovation and capability of our contractor base.”
And Clapper, who has experience in the private sector, would know. After retiring from the military in 1995, following a career in intelligence — from high-level positions within the Air Force to director of the Defense Intelligence Agency — he became a private-sector consultant for industry giants Booz Allen Hamilton and SRA International.
McCarthy said Clapper’s current role plays an important role for government intelligence contractors, even if it’s not one specifically spelled out on his resume.
“It’s interesting, because the DNI does not have significant acquisitional authority,” she explained, “but he plays an incredibly important role in terms of providing policy guidance and orchestrating the contracting industry with that of intelligence, which is just as — if not more — important.”
Clapper, himself, said he was well qualified to review the role of contractors within the community.
“I worked as a contractor for six years myself, so I think I have a good understanding of the contribution that they have made and will continue to make,” he said.
Industry leaders also see opportunities for partnership between government and the private sector.
Industry and intelligence-gatherers working together “provide a capability where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” ENSCO’s Greg Young said. “This synergy and partnership provides a stronger and more powerful capability to the most significant element of our national power and national security than any nation on the planet,” he added, which differentiates U.S. intelligence-gathering operations from nearly all others.
Clapper’s confirmation hearings, which resulted in a unanimous vote, took place amid an investigation by The Washington Post that sought to uncover evidence of an overly complex and inefficient national security bureaucracy, a supposedly “hidden world, growing beyond control,” in The Post’s parlance.
But Clapper said the stories amounted to little more than “sensationalism.”
“One man’s duplication is another man’s competitive analysis,” he said, in response to The Post’s finding that unnecessary redundancies drained the system.
That said, many industry leaders and Clapper, himself, do believe intelligence operations can be run more efficiently.
“Not atypical of any large, complex organization, there are very real opportunities to improve efficiencies,” Deloitte’s Tim Chase said
Some involve improving processes within individual agencies, while others deal with enacting reforms across the intelligence community, such as standardizing the procurement process.
The most complex and transformational change is reforming how agencies work together to gather intelligence.
This is more than just improving the process, Chase explained. “It requires a complete transformation of how programs across the community work together,” a fundamental rethinking of not just the intelligence community, but how each piece of the IC mosaic fits together.
For President and CEO of Fulcrum IT Jeff Handy, this is particularly important.
“Because of the vast size and number of potential threats, another growing issue facing the DNI is the coordination between domestic civilian agencies” and those within the Defense Department, said Handy, whose firm provides information technology services to the feds.
Industry leaders’ calls for collaboration echo one of Clapper’s main missions and one for which the office of the DNI was created: the need for inter-agency collaboration and synchronization.
Clapper’s varied personal experiences might better position him to understand and institute such integration, ENSCO’s Young says, which has long been a goal for the IC. After all, Clapper headed intelligence agencies throughout the military, including as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and as a member of the Pentagon brass as well.
Clapper’s “background, diverse intelligence experience, crossing civilian and military IC organizations, brings essential breadth and perspective in meeting the needs of an integrated intelligence organization,” Young said.
But intelligence integration, which has become particularly potent following 9/11, is not a magic potion remedy.
In intelligence gathering, information never wanted to be free, only managed better. Sometimes, that management requires it to be shared, but it still must be protected.
It must strike “a critical balance,” Young said, between more widespread information sharing, and protecting sources and methods.
Clapper’s quest to synchronize intelligence operations like a grand maestro before a sometimes-dissonant orchestra comes as he faces major challenges, such as the budget crunch and the shifting landscape of cybersecurity.
While threats across the board “continue to become more varied and more elusive,” Tim Chase said, “cybersecurity challenges are adding a significant new dimension to an already complex problem set.”
Meanwhile, Fulcrum IT’s Handy said budget pressures are a fact of life for most government agencies, but present a stark challenge for Clapper.
“Resourcing our national security requirements with flattening budgets and cuts to lesser priorities will perhaps be the biggest challenge the DNI will face,” he said. “There will surely be difficult choices and decisions to be made.”
But the appetite for efficiencies is not shared by all.
ENSCO’s Greg Young is quick to point out the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficiency, he explained, should not be the primary goal of the intelligence community, “any more than it should be the goal of a physician as he works to accurately diagnose the illness that is killing you.”
“What is essential is that we ensure we are using the resources devoted to the intelligence mission in the most effective way,” he added, and that expenditures are put in perspective compared to other national investments.
“How much is it worth to keep a nuclear weapon out of the hands of an unstable adversary?” Young asks.
Unlike almost all other government agencies, those working in intelligence operate in planned obscurity. In Clapper’s Intelligence Community, Fulcrum IT’s Handy said, “success can rarely be recognized and failures are often front page [news].”
But he still says he notices the hard work of intelligence personnel.
“There is always room to improve,” he added, “but I think the lack of success our adversaries have had is the ultimate metric” of success.
As Clapper continues his quest, to create a truly 21st-century intelligence apparatus, supported by a partnership between government and private industry, the blessing and the curse is the uncharted territory that lies ahead.
With efficiency woes and cyber threats, there is simply no golden age to look or return to. But the idea is not to “recreate the past,” McCarthy said, “because we need an Intelligence Community that not only can support the current threat, but also the future one.”p>