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Clapper considered top choice for White House intel post

James Clapper (AP)

Senior Pentagon official James Clapper has emerged as a leading candidate to replace Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence, but other candidates have not been ruled out, two U.S. officials said on Friday.

Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has considerable sway with President Barack Obama, the officials said on condition of anonymity.

The White House declined to comment on Clapper or other potential candidates to replace Blair, who was pushed out after a tumultuous 16 months in the job.

Blair’s deputy, David Gompert, will fill in temporarily after Blair formally leaves next Friday. Blair’s departure, announced Thursday, was the first major shake-up of Obama’s national security team.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama had determined it was time for a change.

“The president decided to make a change. I’ll let that speak for itself,” he said, when asked whether Obama had lost confidence in Blair.

Obama began interviewing candidates to replace Blair before his resignation was announced.

“The president has talked to a number of well-qualified candidates, and we’ll make an announcement on who the next permanent DNI will be soon,” Gibbs told his daily news briefing.

Obama is unlikely to leave the DNI job vacant for long at a time of heightened domestic security concerns following a failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner and a botched May 1 car-bombing in New York’s Time Square.

Blair’s tenure has been marked by infighting within the CIA and sharp criticism over the intelligence community’s failure to prevent the Christmas Day plot.

“My guess is there is probably no harder job in Washington besides being president than being director of national intelligence,” Gibbs said. He said the job was newly created and that Blair had to address a range of issues, notably coordination among the many U.S. intelligence agencies.

“There’s no doubt that we continue to have, as a result — and we saw this — that the president identified on the attempted Christmas Day bombing — that there are still coordination issues that we have to work through,” Gibbs said.

Gates, a former director of the CIA, and Clapper have worked closely together on intelligence matters for decades.

Clapper was one of Gates’s first major hires when he became defense secretary under then-President George W. Bush, and one of the few appointees invited to stay on with Gates at the Pentagon after Obama took office.

Associates describe Clapper as a low-key career intelligence officer who is comfortable working behind the scenes.

Although Gates would make a formidable ally, some congressional aides questioned how Clapper, as a relative outsider, would fare in any bureaucratic skirmishes within Obama’s tight-knit White House.

Other possible candidates include John Hamre, who served as undersecretary of defense from 1993 to 1997, and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, officials said.

Copyright © 2010 Reuters Ltd.

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