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Spy chief nominee clears Senate hurdle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday unanimously approved James Clapper to be President Barack Obama's intelligence chief, sending the nomination to the full Senate.

Clapper, whose nomination had been held up for weeks as some lawmakers questioned whether he had the right background for the job, would be the fourth person to hold the director of national intelligence post in five years.

Obama nominated Clapper, who currently serves as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, in June after he ousted Admiral Dennis Blair from the intelligence chief's job.

Blair's 16-month tenure was marked by bureaucratic turf battles with the CIA and the White House, and sharp criticism over the intelligence community's failure to prevent a botched Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner.

Congress created the director of national intelligence post in 2004 to oversee the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, in response to lapses exposed by the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. But critics say the post has never been given enough authority to be effective.

At his confirmation hearing, Clapper played down the need for another intelligence overhaul, saying the current structure could be made to work more efficiently and that legislative changes were not necessary at this time.

"I initially had reservations, but those have been overcome by his experience and leadership ability," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee.

Clapper's critics in Congress had said he was ill-suited for the position because of his close ties to the Pentagon and what they see as a reluctance to share information with the legislative branch, which oversees the intelligence community.

Clapper sought to smooth over those tensions, brushing aside suggestions he would be beholden to the Pentagon and promising to keep Congress informed of intelligence activities if confirmed.

(Reporting by Adam Entous; editing by Mohammad Zargham)