In an early test of wills, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair has tried to override some of CIA Director Leon Panetta’s choices for CIA station chiefs.
Blair has further attempted to expand his domain by trying to install personnel from other intelligence agencies to represent the DNI as the senior intelligence representative in each country over CIA station chiefs.
The disputes between Panetta and Blair are “more personal” than was wrangling over similar issues between former CIA Director Michael Hayden and former National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, according to a former high-ranking CIA official. So far, Panetta is holding firm to his choices and is winning the turf battle.
Asked for comment, Wendy Morigi, the national intelligence director's public affairs chief, said Blair and Panetta “see the majority of issues the same way, and when there are differences, they work through them. They have a very strong working relationship. They talk almost every day and meet once a week to discuss key issues.”
The skirmishing and jockeying for power raise the question of why we have a national intelligence director in the first place. In theory, before 9/11, the central intelligence director coordinated the 18 agencies that now compose the intelligence community. In practice, because the central intelligence director did not have budget authority, he could do little to change the direction of intelligence components such as the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or the Department of Homeland Security.
The 9/11 commission recommended appointment of a national intelligence director who would have budgetary authority so he could better coordinate the work of the intelligence community and resolve differences. He would also be the principal intelligence advisor to the president, providing him with daily intelligence briefings.
As envisioned by the commission, the national intelligence director would not head a major agency of his own. Rather, he would have a “relatively small staff of several hundred people, taking the place of the existing community management offices housed at the CIA,” according to the commission’s report.
Under pressure to follow the commission’s recommendations, President Bush and Congress endorsed the national intelligence director proposal, and the office was created in April 2005. But rather than having a staff of several hundred, the national intelligence director has ballooned into a major agency with 1,500 employees housed in a new building next to the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va.
What have those employees done to improve intelligence? According to a wide swathe of people I have talked with in the intelligence community, very little.
On the one hand, despite having budgetary authority in many areas, McConnell, Blair’s predecessor as national intelligence director, was timid about taking on intelligence agencies. On the other hand, as one former CIA official puts it, “The DNI creates work for everybody else and gets in their way.”
Specifically, the national intelligence director's office spends most of its time asking for special reports from the CIA and other agencies. What becomes of them is a mystery. Indeed, a report by the national intelligence director's former inspector general, Edward Maguire, said a majority of national intelligence employees his staff interviewed were themselves unable to articulate a clear understanding of the office's role.
If most of the employees of a private firm did not know what they were supposed to do, the company would be out of business soon. But this is a government agency. Aside from wasting taxpayer money and bifurcating the intelligence community, the back and forth created by having a new layer of bureaucracy imposed on top of existing intelligence agencies wastes everyone’s time.
Whether the national intelligence director should give intelligence briefings to the president is debatable. There is great value in having the individual who briefs the president go back to the CIA and task CIA officers directly with uncovering or clarifying information of interest to the president. That is what the centrall intelligence director did before creation of the national intelligence director.
In commenting on this story, Morigi, of the national intelligence offce, said there has been “enormous progress in the last five years to improve collaboration and integration throughout the intelligence community. Many of the disputes in authorities have been addressed, including counterterrorism analysis, information sharing, and acquisition guidance.”
Morigi said Blair is “building on this progress and working closely with the CIA director and other intelligence community leaders to foster a stronger sense of community, ensuring that the whole of the intelligence community is greater than the sum of its parts.”
To be sure, some in the intelligence community — most notably former CIA Director Michael Hayden — agree that the DNI has value.
“I wouldn’t go change it,” Hayden tells me. “It’s workable, but that relationship, between the DNI and the DCIA [CIA director] is the most critical in the American intelligence community. And what you need from the one guy, the DCIA, is transparency towards the DNI, and what you need the other way, from the DNI to the DCIA, is freedom of action.”
On “most days, most issues,” Hayden says, he and McConnell had that. But Blair, who disastrously and unsuccessfully tried to install Charles W. Freeman Jr. as the nation’s top intelligence analyst, has been flexing his muscles far more than did McConnell.
Blair is no match for Panetta, who is close to President Barack Obama’s people, has panache, and is well-versed in Washington infighting. Despite his lack of an intelligence background, Panetta has so far won over the CIA by being supportive, by listening, and by leaving operational decisions to his highly respected deputy, Stephen Kappes.
But the fundamental problem created by a new bloated federal bureaucracy remains.
As if Congress has had nothing to do with funding the office, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, recently complained to Blair during a hearing that he is “concerned by the dramatic shift away from Congress’ vision of the size, composition, and function of the office of the director of National Intelligence.”
Under Blair’s predecessors, the national intelligence director “became entangled in management, grew enormous in size, and has amassed too many scarce intelligence resources for itself,” Hoekstra said. “Instead of a lean coordinating body, we got fat, layer upon layer of bureaucracy at the top of the community.”
Before creation of the national intelligence director, the original central intelligence director wore three hats: He managed the CIA, he was supposed to manage the intelligence community, and he briefed the president. Perhaps the job was too much for one person. If so, a case can be made that the national intelligence director, as the 9/11 commissionoriginally envisioned, would have served a purpose. But the present albatross of 1,500 employees meddling with intelligence professionals and confusing the chain of command is a step backward in achieving the national intelligence director's stated aims of unifying and streamlining the intelligence community.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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