Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Thursday that he has submitted his resignation to President Barack Obama and will not stay on past the transition to Donald Trump.
Clapper offered the news during his opening statement in a rare open hearing of the House Intelligence Committee after the panel’s ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff of California, said he had heard rumors that the spy chief might stay on into the Trump administration.
That’s not going to happen, Clapper said. "I submitted my letter of resignation last night, which felt pretty good," he said. "I got 64 days left, and I think I’d have a hard time with my wife anything past that."
Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who took on the intelligence director role in 2010, had long said he would be done after this year. He will finish out his term at noon on Jan. 20, his office said afterward.
Senate Intelligence Committee members Angus King (I-Maine) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) urged Trump on Thursday to act soon to "nominate an experienced DNI" who can "build an intelligence community leadership team that will put a high value on collaboration."
"Most importantly, if selected early, your DNI could advise on candidates for directors of the intelligence agencies he or she will work with most often,” they wrote.
The most controversial aspect of Clapper’s tenure may have been his statement to a Senate panel in 2013 that U.S. spy agencies were not collecting data on American citizens — a claim later contradicted by information leaked by National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
"No, sir. Not wittingly," Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee in response to a question by Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. "There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly."
Several months later, the Snowden leaks appeared to suggest that Clapper had not been truthful. But Clapper later said it was a very difficult question to answer in a public session and did not easily lend itself to a yes or no answer.
"What I said was the NSA does not voyeuristically pore through U.S. citizens’ emails. I stand by that," Clapper later told National Journal.
"I thought though in retrospect I was asked [a] ‘when are you going to stop beating your wife’ kind of question, meaning not answerable necessarily, by a simple yes or no," he added. "So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least most untruthful manner, by saying, ‘No.’"
Wyden, however, sees the episode as unforgivable and part of a pattern of deception about mass surveillance programs.
“During Director Clapper’s tenure, senior intelligence officials engaged in an deception spree regarding mass surveillance," Wyden said Thursday in a statement after Clapper’s announcement. "Top officials, officials who reported to Director Clapper, repeatedly misled the American people and even lied to them."
“Director Clapper famously gave an untrue answer to that question," Wyden added. "So I had my intelligence staffer call his office afterward and ask them to correct the record. The Director’s office refused to correct the record. Regardless of what was going through the director’s head when he testified, failing to correct the record was a deliberate decision to lie to the American people about what their government was doing. And within a few months, of course, the truth came out.”
“I urge the next administration to take a different approach and reject the use of secret law that has been all too common in recent years,” Wyden continued. "In America the truth always comes out eventually, and when it does, Americans have proven time and again they will be outraged at the government agencies, officials and politicians who allow secret and expansive interpretations of the law.”
The DNI post was created in 2004 and designed to better manage the vast array of U.S. spy agencies and improve their coordination after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Members of both parties were quick Thursday to credit Clapper with making significant progress.
“Jim’s depth of experience gave him the unique ability to fully understand the range of challenges to our national security,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the intelligence panel, said in a statement. “Amidst evolving challenges from our adversaries, Jim has continued to reinforce our intelligence relationships with our allies and successfully managed the intelligence community enterprise.”
One former senior intelligence official who worked closely with him said Clapper did better than his predecessors in making progress without offending the independence of key agencies.
“I think history will be kind to Jim Clapper,” said Daniel Benjamin, who served as the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator from 2009 to 2012. “He wisely accepted that on lots of different issues the CIA director has a lot more heft than he did and in some areas NSA was almost sovereign in the field.”
“He worked constructively to move that process forward instead of fighting small battles or big battles on small issues,” he added.
Mike Morell, who was acting CIA director in 2012 and 2013, called Clapper "the best DNI the country has had.”
“He cares deeply about the women and men of the [intelligence community], and that is felt by all," Morell said. "He put in place new capabilities that will serve the nation well for years, and he has not micromanaged the agencies.”
Schiff offered praise for Clapper too, telling POLITICO: “I’ll be sorry to see him go. I think he’s done a phenomenal job in taking a very difficult position at a fairly new agency and molding it into something that’s been very constructive and added a lot of value to the [intelligence community]."