NEW ORLEANS | The nation’s most senior intelligence official said on Monday that U.S. security agencies worked together well in halting al Qaeda’s latest bomb plot, after shortfalls were found after an earlier plot by the group to conduct a suicide bombing on a Detroit-bound jetliner.
“We had an exciting weekend with the air-cargo bomb plot,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a speech here. “Having watched and participated in that over the weekend, it was a remarkable amalgam of intelligence, law enforcement and homeland security, which in this instance worked very well.”
Mr. Clapper, in remarks to the annual meeting of the private U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, also disclosed that he has reached agreement with the Pentagon to take control of some $50 billion worth of nonmilitary intelligence spending for annual budgets that are currently part of the defense budget. The money will be administered by the civilian Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) by 2013, he said.
On the plot of Yemeni origin to blow up two U.S. freight aircraft, Mr. Clapper said that despite the success in intercepting two bombs built in computer-printer cartridges, “this is not to say that we can expect that seemingly flawless thwarting of a very nefarious, devious attack all the time. We are not going to bat a thousand. At least I can’t make an assurance like that.”
The comments were the first by a senior U.S. intelligence official on the plot.
In Yemen on Tuesday, the government in San’a placed American-born al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on trial for terrorism and ties to the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Mr. al-Awlaki is accused by U.S. officials as being an inspiration and operational planner in the recent wave of English-speaking jihadists who have attempted attacks against the United States.
Yemeni authorities also launched a new manhunt against the perpetrators of the bomb plot.
Earlier this year, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report that identified numerous shortcomings by the intelligence community that might have led them to thwart the airliner plot sooner. The shortcomings included failures to share intelligence across federal government agencies and electronic-eavesdropping failures.
On the issue of intelligence budgets, Mr. Clapper said he reached a general agreement with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to transfer to the DNI office more control over the $50 billion that helps fund such national intelligence programs as the National Security Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Last week, the Obama administration disclosed the current annual budget for intelligence spending for so-called national intelligence programs is $53.1 billion. The Pentagon revealed that its spending for military intelligence programs is an additional $27 billion.
Since 2005, when the ODNI was created, budget authority of the director has not been clearly defined. As a result, the secretary of defense often clashed with the director of national intelligence over budgeting priorities.
Mr. Clapper, recently promoted from undersecretary of defense for intelligence, had argued that budget authority for national intelligence programs should stay within the Pentagon.
On Monday, however, Mr. Clapper revealed that he has changed his position. “One thing I am doing is that I have secured at least a conceptual agreement with the secretary of defense to take the national intelligence program out of the defense budget. We plan to do that by 2013. I mention that because I think that is one specific way to accrue more authority to ODNI in the oversight and execution of that funding.”
Mr. Clapper noted that “to me, that is kind of a win-win; it is $50 billion off the top line of [Defense Department]. And it certainly gives ODNI a lot more authority and insight and transparency over that money.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy within the Federation of American Scientists, welcomed the news on the intelligence budgets.
“It’s a profoundly important step that would enhance the integrity of the budget process,” he said. “Among other things, it would end the deception of secretly funding the CIA out of the [Defense Department] budget.”
Overall, Mr. Clapper warned he will be making cuts to the overall intelligence budget of more than $80 billion annually for both civilian and military intelligence programs.
“I would like to profit from what happened to us in the 90s and lay out a strategy for this to absorb the pain smartly and do it over a period in two or three years,” he said.
“But in the interest of candor, I want to tell this audience we are going to have to do this.”