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Despite tough patch, U.S. intelligence chief says he is staying

By Warren Strobel

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Despite enduring "a perfect storm" of troubles for U.S. spy agencies over the last 18 months, the director of national intelligence announced on Tuesday that he plans to stay on the job through the end of President Barack Obama's term.

Speaking to an industry conference in Tampa, James Clapper detailed a litany of challenges he said have hit the $45 billion-per-year U.S. intelligence-gathering effort, from U.S. budget turmoil and the Syrian war to leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

"The past 18 months is one of the toughest stretches for the intelligence community I've seen in my 50-plus years in the business," Clapper said.

Clapper, a former Air Force general who oversees 17 intelligence agencies and is known for his sometimes-blunt language, predicted that spending on everything from spy satellites to human agents would continue to decline.

To critics of U.S. intelligence, he said: "You're going to have a lot less of it to complain about."

Speaking on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, Clapper defended the work of spy and law enforcement agencies in that incident, saying after-action reviews had found "no smoking guns, no real failure to connect the dots."

A report by intelligence community inspectors general released last week found that information that may have increased scrutiny of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell through the cracks in communications among U.S. intelligence agencies and between the United States and Russia.

Clapper's most vigorous complaints were aimed at Snowden, who revealed highly classified details of U.S. eavesdropping programs and other sensitive matters. Two news organizations, the Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper, were awarded Pulitzer Prizes on Monday for their reporting on the Snowden revelations.

Another senior U.S. official said here Tuesday that Snowden, who was granted asylum in Russia, is now believed to have accessed about 1.5 million classified documents, not the 1.7 million previously reported.

Speaking to a largely sympathetic audience of defense and intelligence professionals at the GEOINT conference in Tampa, Clapper rejected Snowden's reputation as a whistleblower, and said he had caused enormous damage to American security.

Because of the leaks, he said, "We're beginning to see changes in the communications behavior of adversaries, particularly and most disturbingly, terrorists - a trend that I anticipate will continue."

Clapper came in for his own share of criticism for telling a Senate hearing, months before the Snowden leaks began last June, that the United States was not collecting data on millions of American citizens. An NSA program to gather bulk data about Americans' phone calls was still classified at the time, and Clapper later described his statement as the "least most untruthful" answer he could give publicly.

"It's not exactly been a fun year, a fun time for me personally," Clapper said on Tuesday.

The intelligence chief said, nonetheless, that he and his principal deputy, Stephanie O'Sullivan, intend to stay until Obama's term ends in January 2017.

Clapper said he wants to oversee completion of a multibillion-dollar program intended to integrate intelligence agencies' numerous separate classified information systems - and perhaps to prevent future Snowdens.

Clapper recalled how, as a senior Pentagon official, he used to meet with colleagues on Friday evenings and drink a martini.

"In this job," he said, "every night."

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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