Who's the spy boss?
CIA Director Nominee John Brennan and DNI James Clapper
January 14th, 2013
12:01 AM ET

Who's the spy boss?

By Pam Benson

Creating the office of the director of national intelligence in 2005 was meant to improve the management of the nation’s intelligence gathering in the wake of 9/11, but it has often led to turf wars between national intelligence directors and directors of the CIA.

Now President Barack Obama’s nomination of his trusted counterterrorism aide, John Brennan, as CIA director may leave the impression the CIA director is the top spy, even though the director of national intelligence technically would be his boss.

The problem, past directors in both posts and other experts say, is that the DNI’s role is ambiguous.


FIRST ON CNN: Clapper to stay on as intel chief
December 17th, 2012
05:44 PM ET

FIRST ON CNN: Clapper to stay on as intel chief

By Barbara Starr

With the president expected to soon name his choices for leadership at the State Department, Pentagon and CIA, one key position will remain consistent - the director of national intelligence.

James Clapper has told colleagues he will be staying as director of national intelligence (DNI), according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of Clapper's plans. The official said Clapper will stay at the head of the Office of Director of National Intelligence "for the foreseeable future."

President Barack Obama requested that Clapper stay on, amid an expected second-term overhaul of the other key national security posts. The official, who could not be identified because no official announcement has been made about Clapper, said word of the director staying at the request of the White House began to filter through the intelligence community on Monday.

Because the DNI's job does not have a fixed term of office, Clapper will not face a new confirmation hearing by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The official said the director had told colleagues and the White House he did not want to go through another hearing.

Clapper has proven to be a key bulwark for the Obama administration in the face of Republican criticism over response to the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, in particular after he acknowledged it was the intelligence community that was responsible for the substantive changes made to the talking points distributed for government officials who spoke publicly about the attack.


Creating a classified cloud for spies
The architects: Kelly Miller, NSA; Jeanne Tsinger, CIA; Grant Schneider, DIA; Al Tarasiuk, ODNI; Jill Tummler Singer, NRO; Keith E. Littlefield, NGA
March 28th, 2012
03:00 AM ET

Creating a classified cloud for spies

By Suzanne Kelly

The Intelligence Community (IC) is undergoing its biggest technological change ever as a team of hundreds works to build a computer system that links together nearly all of the 17 intelligence entities through a series of classified servers. To call it an ambitious project might be an understatement. The architects of the undertaking aim to get an initial version going by the end of the year.

The chief information officers at the most prominent agencies of the Intelligence Community were assigned the mission last summer when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper began to brace for budget cuts that would hit the community hard. For the first time in a decade, the IC would be forced to downsize under the strain of a budget that could no longer maintain the expansive growth the community had experienced since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

By last fall, Clapper was paraphrasing a favorite quote by a New Zealand physicist Earnest Rutherford who, in the midst of his own country's budget deliberations in 1927, said, “We’re running out of money so we must begin to think.”

Different shades of red line for Iran
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear site
March 1st, 2012
07:00 PM ET

Different shades of red line for Iran

Analysis by Pam Benson

The time frame for knowing whether Iran has crossed a so-called red line toward making a nuclear weapon could be shrinking as Iran increases its uranium enrichment capacity. (Read also: Rational or not, Iran is a real danger)

Last week's report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicated Iran had significantly stepped up its enrichment operation, adding centrifuges used to process uranium at its Natanz and Fordow facilities and producing far greater quantities of 20% enriched uranium.

If Iran continues to enrich uranium to that level at the current expanded rate, nuclear experts say Iran would have enough material to further enrich to make a crude bomb, at the very least, by early next year. To do so, Iran would have to go another step and further enrich to the 90% level to make weapons-grade uranium, but analysts believe that is not a technically difficult achievement for Iran.


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Filed under: Analysis • Clapper • Hillary Clinton • IAEA • Intelligence • Iran • Israel • Nuclear • Panetta • Rep. Mike Rogers • weapons
The Taliban who may leave Gitmo
U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
February 3rd, 2012
01:00 AM ET

The Taliban who may leave Gitmo

By Adam Levine and Tim Lister, with reporting from Ted Barrett and Pam Benson

As part of its efforts to explore peace talks with the Taliban, the Obama administration is considering the controversial release of several senior Taliban figures from the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The names of those being considered for release have not been disclosed, and the conditions are still being discussed. But diplomatic sources say they would probably be relocated to Qatar in the Persian Gulf, where the Taliban is negotiating the establishment of a liaison office to facilitate dialogue with the U.S.

The administration has said any discussion about releasing the detainees is very preliminary and hinges on the Taliban renouncing terrorism and agreeing to peace talks.

But the proposal, confirmed in congressional testimony this week, has come under attack in Congress. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said Thursday that the U.S. was "crossing a dangerous line" by discussing the possibility of releasing the prisoners.

And in a letter to President Obama, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan, warned that the release would "send the wrong message to the Taliban." FULL POST

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Filed under: Afghanistan • Clapper • Detainees • McCain • McKeon • ODNI • Petraeus • Qatar • Senate Select Committee on Intelligence • Taliban • WikiLeaks
Intel report cites strides, threats
New Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri appearing in an Al-Qaeda video released in October 2011. The deaths of Osama bin Laden and top lieutenants under Zawahiri have weakened the terrorist network according to the annual U.S. intelligence community's threat assessment released Tuesday.
January 31st, 2012
10:19 AM ET

Intel report cites strides, threats

From CNN's Joe Sterling and Pam Benson

The al Qaeda terror network is weakening and the embattled Afghan government is making modest strides, but cyber security threats are on the rise and Iranian nuclear aspirations remain a major peril.

These are among the main themes in the annual U.S. intelligence community's threat assessment, a sweeping 31-page document released Tuesday that touches on a range of issues across the globe.

"The United States no longer faces - as in the Cold War - one dominant threat," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in prepared testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which will meet on Tuesday to discuss the report.

He said "counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, cyber security and counter-intelligence are at the immediate forefront of our security concerns" and that the "multiplicity and interconnectedness of potential threats - and the actors behind them ... constitute our biggest challenge."

Al Qaeda - the terror network that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 - "will continue to be a dangerous transnational force," but there have been strides, the report concludes.

Even spies not immune to budget cuts
CIA seal on floor at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia Photo By: CIA
October 17th, 2011
06:26 PM ET

Even spies not immune to budget cuts

By CNN Sr. National Security Producer Pam Benson

The dramatic increases in the U.S. intelligence budget are coming to a screeching halt with billions of dollars in cuts expected over the next decade, according to the nation's chief intelligence officer.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the GeoInt conference in San Antonio, Texas, on Monday that the cuts will be double-digit billions over the next 10 years for the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the other groups that make up the 16-member intelligence community.

The total amount spent for non-military and battlefield intelligence was approximately $80 billion for the fiscal year that ended last month, more than double what it was prior to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Clapper told CNN the cuts mandated by the Office of Management and Budget represents a lot of money, but the community has "pretty much figured out a way to do" it. He warned, however, that it will mean accepting some risk.

"I'm trying to use this as well as an opportunity to make some improvements. It's bad, but it's not all doom and gloom, but to be clear, we will be accepting some risk. We will not have quite the capability that we have today, which is very substantial," he said.


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Filed under: 9/11 • CIA • Clapper • Intelligence • ODNI • Terrorism
US: Al Qaeda in Pakistan could be gone in two years
As Al Qaeda in Pakistan is threatened, Al Qaeda in Yemen and its leader Anwar al-Awlaki, are gaining strength
September 14th, 2011
08:33 PM ET

US: Al Qaeda in Pakistan could be gone in two years

By Sr. National Security Producer Pam Benson

Al Qaeda's ability to carry out operations from its Pakistan base could be eliminated within the next two years, according to Michael Vickers, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Vickers told a conference at the National Defense University this week that, "Assuming sustained CT (counterterrorism) operations against the group, within 18 to 24 months, core al Qaeda cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that the group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm and power could devolve to regional affiliates."

(See also Security Clearance's look at the effort to find the world's most dangerous terrorists)

This marks the first time a senior U.S. official has put a time frame on the end of the threat of attack posed by al Qaeda's senior leadership operating in the ungoverned areas of Pakistan.

On his first trip to Afghanistan as defense secretary in July, Leon Panetta told reporters that the United States was "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda." He said the successful operation to take out Osama bin Laden and the identification of other key al Qaeda leaders put the United States in a better position.

"If we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning, to be able to conduct any kind of attack" on the United States. "That's why I think it's within reach. Is it going to take some more work? You bet it is. But I think it's within reach," Panetta said.

In his speech on Tuesday, Vickers said al Qaeda's leaders "are being eliminated at a far faster rate than al Qaeda can replace them," and noted the replacements "are much less experienced and credible."

He said eight of al Qaeda's 20 key leaders have been eliminated this year, citing the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, the death of al Qaeda second-in-command Atiya Abdul Rahman in August, and the capture of Younis Mauritani, a senior planner of operations, earlier this month. FULL POST

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Filed under: 9/11 • Afghanistan • Al Qaeda • Al-Shabaab • Al-Zawahiri • Anwar al-Awlaki • CIA • Clapper • Intelligence • Osama bin Laden • Pakistan • Petraeus • Somalia • Terrorism • Yemen
New al Qaeda message reinforces focus on Arab Spring
September 13th, 2011
01:42 PM ET

New al Qaeda message reinforces focus on Arab Spring

By CNN's Tim Lister

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri returns to one of his favorite themes in the video released to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11: the Arab Spring. Even if the uprisings from Yemen to Tunisia were inspired by young pro-democracy protesters, al Qaeda clearly wants to co-opt them – and sees opportunities in the instability they have caused.

The video, running just over an hour, is optimistically titled “The Dawn of Imminent Victory” and was released Monday by al Qaeda’s media arm, as-Sahab. It includes the latest in a series of lengthy diatribes from Zawahiri (eight so far this year) on the rapidly changing situation in Arab states.

Zawahiri’s segment is audio-only, showing a still picture of the new al-Qaeda leader. He says that contrary to what is claimed by the western media, al-Qaeda supports the revolutions in the Arab world and hopes they will establish true Islam and government based on Shariah, or Islamic law. He also claims the revolutions are a form of defeat for the United States, just as the 9/11 attacks and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were also defeats, according to a translation of his remarks by the SITE Institute, which monitors jihadist forums.

Zawahiri, an Egyptian who tried to overthrow Presidents Sadat and Mubarak before leaving the country in the 1980s, also returns to comments he made in his seven episodes of “A Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt.”

He argues that the Egyptian military council that has replaced Mubarak cannot be trusted. In other statements recently, he has said Egypt’s new rulers are slaves to the United States and will abide by Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. It’s a consistent theme in his messages – that Washington is trying to replace one with dictator with another. FULL POST

Filed under: Arab Spring • Clapper • Osama bin Laden • Petraeus
September 13th, 2011
11:13 AM ET

Intel chiefs: Al Qaeda weaker but still a threat

Al Qaeda is weakened and might be spreading out further, but remains a significant threat to the United States, the nation's top intelligence officials told a congressional committee Tuesday.

CIA Director David Petraeus, the former military commander in Afghanistan who made his first congressional appearance as a civilian at the rare joint hearing by the intelligence committees of the House and Senate, said al Qaeda was far weaker today than it was 10 years ago at the time of the 9/11 attacks due to the killing of Osama bin Laden and other successful attacks on leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to Petraeus, the "heavy losses to al Qaeda senior leadership appear to have created an important window of vulnerability for the core al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan," and the United States will need a "sustained focused effort" to exploit the opportunity.

"Some mid-level leaders and rank-and-file al Qaeda members may increasingly seek safe haven across the border in Afghanistan or decide to leave South Asia," Petraeus said, adding that "even in decline with its core leadership having sustained significant losses, al Qaeda and its affiliates still pose a very real threat that will require" continued U.S. focus and dedication "for quite a while."

He called al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based affiliate, the most dangerous of the group's various "nodes."\

At the hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper also said that despite U.S. successes against al Qaeda, the group remains a threat.

Filed under: 9/11 • Al Qaeda • CIA • Clapper • Living With Terror • ODNI • Petraeus • Terrorism • Yemen