The Cable

The Top U.S. Intelligence Official Just Said He Has Resigned

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is the first senior official in the Obama administration to announce he is stepping down as President-elect Donald Trump scrambles to fill top government jobs.


Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told lawmakers Thursday he has sent a letter of resignation to the House Select Committee on Intelligence and it “felt pretty good.”

“I got 64 days left,” he added. “I think I’d have a hard time with my wife anything past that.” 

Clapper, the longest-serving DNI since the position was created after 9/11, said he sent his official resignation to the panel on Wednesday night. As DNI, he was the top intelligence official in the U.S. government, overseeing 16 civilian and military intelligence agencies. A statement released by his office Thursday said Clapper will serve until President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

Clapper’s resignation comes at a conspicuous time in the horse race for top posts in the the incoming administration. Trump is widely believed to be considering retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former top military intelligence official, to be his national security advisor. Such a move could signal Trump’s intention to water down the DNI job and centralize intelligence and top security issues at the White House.

Like Clapper, Flynn is a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he served from 2012 to 2014. Though he is one of the most experienced national security hands in the president-elect’s inner circle, Flynn spurred controversy among active-duty military personnel when he openly backed Trump and spoke out on the GOP nominee’s behalf at the Republican National Convention in July. (Flynn was not the only retired general to throw his stars onto the political stage this year; retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the former commander in Afghanistan and global coalition taskmaster to defeat the Islamic State, gave a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention for Hillary Clinton.)

Clapper is also used to controversy. He oversaw the U.S. intelligence community during a national debate over government surveillance and civil liberties, and notably claimed to give the “least untruthful” answers possible when pressed on whether the National Security Agency was collecting data on millions of Americans. In December 2010, Clapper was caught unaware of the arrests of 12 terror suspects in London during a TV interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer. And in 2011, the White House walked back the DNI’s claim that Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi would “prevail” against rebels supporting his overthrow. His comments, which National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon called “a static and one-dimensional assessment,” came right after President Obama said Qaddafi no longer held legitimate power.

But Clapper also oversaw some of the most important U.S. intelligence missions since 9/11, including the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

Clapper announced his resignation at a hearing where Republican lawmakers were expected to excoriate the Pentagon and intelligence committee for failing to respond “on a range of critical national security issues,” said House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.).  

Most notably, the hearing was to focus on 2015 complaints by a group of intelligence analysts at the U.S. Central Command that their work was being altered to make the situation in Iraq and Syria appear less grave than their assessments originally found.

In August, a House Republican task force backed up those claims in a damning report, finding that dozens of analysts at Centcom viewed their leadership as “toxic,” while 40 percent of analysts interviewed by congressional staffers reported “they had experienced an attempt to distort or suppress intelligence in the past year.” The investigation was led in part by Nunes, who revealed to Foreign Policy in February that he had been repeatedly stonewalled by the command in investigating the complaints.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat, praised Clapper for “serving honorably.”

“You’ve always exhibited sober judgment and put the fate of the nation first,” Schiff said.

Clapper was tapped as DNI in 2010. Previously, he served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, from 1992 to 1995, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, from 2001 to 2006. He is a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Air Force.

FP’s Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

This article was updated to clarify the controversy surrounding Clapper’s remarks on Qaddafi.

Photo credit: GABRIELLA DEMCZUK/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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