WASHINGTON - He's the right man to ride herd over America's intelligence operations. Or he's a "good guy," but the wrong one for that tough job.
Warring opinions emerged about James R. Clapper after President Obama said Saturday that he wants the Senate to quickly confirm the Pentagon's intelligence chief as director of national intelligence - the fourth since the post was established in 2004.
"Eminently qualified," Obama said in describing 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 has 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 that the 16 U.S. spy agencies work "as one integrated team that produces quality, timely, and accurate intelligence."
"Let's be honest - this is a tough task," Obama said.
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, Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri.
The job is thankless and 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 post-9/11 changes. The intelligence director is not a Cabinet member and lacks much budget authority.
Clapper would succeed retired Adm. 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 and video taken from aircraft. In between, he spent 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 appearance Saturday.
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 Obama's ear and carte blanche entry to the Oval Office, Bond said.
Senate Intelligence chairman Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) has said it would be better to have a civilian in the intelligence job. She and Bond had called for Panetta to shift over to the post.
Panetta, in a statement, said "few people have more intelligence experience" than Clapper. A senior administration official insisted Clapper has worked well with Panetta and other intelligence chiefs and wouldn't have taken the job if he thought he lacked entree.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the job discussions, said that Obama had a long talk with Clapper about the job May 5 - more than two weeks before Blair announced his resignation - and that Clapper followed up with a memo outlining his view of the position.
Obama noted that the Senate had voted to confirm Clapper four times for senior posts.
James R. Clapper Jr.
Education: B.S. in political science, University of Maryland, 1963; M.S. in political science, St. Mary's University, Texas, 1970.
Experience: Defense undersecretary for intelligence, 2007 to date; director, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, 2001-06; executive in private industry; retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general, 1995; director, Defense Intelligence Agency, 1991-95; assistant chief of staff for intelligence, Air Force headquarters, 1990-91; deputy chief of staff for intelligence, Strategic Air Command headquarters, 1989-90; director for intelligence, U.S. Pacific Command headquarters, 1987-89; assistant chief of staff for intelligence, U.S. Forces Korea, and deputy assistant chief of staff for intelligence, Republic of Korea and U.S. Combined Forces Command, 1985-87; commander, Air Force Technical Applications Center, in Florida, 1984-85.