US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper resigns

James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, pauses while speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations on Oct 25, 2016 in New York City.
James Clapper, US Director of National Intelligence, pauses while speaking at the Council of Foreign Relations on Oct 25, 2016 in New York City.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US intelligence chief James Clapper, whose 2013 denial that the US collects personal communications data on millions of citizens led to the stunning Snowden spying expose, on Thursday (Nov 17) announced his resignation.

After six years as Director of National Intelligence, Clapper told a congressional hearing that he would step down on Jan 20, the day Donald Trump is to be sworn in as US president.

Coming after rumours that he might stay on for a new term, his departure would leave another major position to fill for the incoming Trump administration.

Clapper, whose job was to coordinate the work of 17 disparate operations like the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, said resigning “felt pretty good.”

“I submitted my letter of resignation last night,” the retired air force lieutenant general, 75, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

“I’ve got 64 days left and I think I will have a hard time with my wife for anything past that,” he said.

One name circulating as a replacement for Clapper was former Defense Intelligence Agency director and former deputy director of national intelligence Lieutenant-General Ronald Burgess.

Clapper was a career officer in the US Air Force, rising in the electronic intelligence wing to eventually become head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1991.

As US intelligence czar from 2010, Clapper was praised for improving the coordination of intelligence between often-competing and turf-sensitive agencies.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks exposed weaknesses in assembling scattered intelligence from different agencies which might have prevented those attacks.

Since then, there have been no major foreign attacks on US soil, but a number of deadly home-grown “lone wolf” incidents that experts say are hard to prevent.

But Clapper’s tenure was marred by the leak of documents from the National Security Agency demonstrating that it collected massive amounts of data on the communications of US citizens without their knowledge.

In March 2013, Clapper denied in testimony to Congress that the agency swept up such data from US telecommunications providers.

Months later, former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents showing that the NSA did in fact collect such data, leading to accusations that Clapper lied to Congress on the issue and calls for his resignation.

The data also showed how the US spies on allies, sparking tensions with top partners like France and Germany.

In an interview in 2014, Snowden said that Clapper’s denials had prompted him to leak the top secret data.

Clapper though condemned Snowden for damaging the US ability to collect intelligence and for giving away US secrets to enemies.

“What Snowden has stolen and exposed has gone way, way beyond his professed concerns with so-called domestic surveillance programs,” Clapper told a hearing in January 2014.

“As a result, we’ve lost critical foreign intelligence collection sources, including some shared with us by valued partners.”

But he also said separately that the revelations sparked a debate over balancing government spying powers and privacy rights that “actually probably needed to happen.” .

Clapper was praised Thursday by Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Amidst evolving challenges from our adversaries, Jim has continued to reinforce our intelligence relationships with our allies and successfully managed the intelligence community enterprise,” he said in a statement.

But he was blasted by Senator Ron Wyden, whose 2013 question to Clapper over illegal NSA data collection led to his infamous denial.

“During Director Clapper’s tenure, senior intelligence officials engaged in a deception spree regarding mass surveillance,” Wyden said in a statement.