The Magazine

Catfights Inside U.S. Intelligence

The struggles can be petty but the stakes are high.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By GARY SCHMITT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Dennis Blair was confirmed by the Senate to be Obama's director of national intelligence (DNI) within days of the inauguration. Other than his failed attempt to appoint Charles Freeman to head up the office which produces national intelligence estimates, Blair's only other newsworthy achievement has been to be in a running battle with CIA director Leon Panetta--another Obama appointee--over who will be the real don when it comes to American intelligence.

The most recent scuffle came to light when it was reported that the White House had given Blair the authority to evaluate the effectiveness of "sensitive operations" run by U.S. intelligence. In a memo sent to staff on November 13, Blair went out of his way to note that this would include operations "conducted by the CIA." Behind vague wording and oblique phrasing, Blair was saying that he would now have a say about whether the agency's covert action programs were working and/or worth the effort. In effect, Blair would now get to play Monday morning quarterback with programs historically held tightly within the CIA.

Earlier in the year, Blair wanted the final say on who would be the government's principal intelligence representative in American "stations" abroad. In the past, this had always been the prerogative of the CIA director--who before the creation of the DNI was also double hatted as "director of central intelligence" and nominal head of the intelligence community. As a practical matter, this authority fell naturally into his lane since the station chiefs were almost always CIA officers. Blair, not unreasonably, believed that times had changed: that the lead intelligence person in a country abroad today has more on his hands than just running agents and that the liaison work with foreign governments was a far broader task than what a senior "case officer" was accustomed to handling. After a fairly public airing of the clearly acrimonious dispute, however, Panetta retained that authority for the CIA.

Panetta has not lost out altogether in the matter of overseeing sensitive operations either. Blair's new responsibilities do not include authority of saying "yea" or "nay" to the operations themselves--an authority Blair apparently sought. Covert action remains a matter to be decided largely between Langley and the White House.

The turf fights occur because the position of DNI is itself unclear. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 made the DNI the head of the whole intelligence community and the principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters. It also provided him with sufficient power over the intelligence community's budget and personnel to make those new roles effective. Frankly, it is not surprising that Blair would try to assert himself and the authority of his office given his military background. A former admiral, he headed the U.S. military's Pacific Command (PACOM), where he commanded thousands of military personnel and hundreds of ships and planes. There is little doubt in Blair's mind that if you're given a broad mandate then you should have say over what's being done. But the 2004 law creating the DNI was not specific about matters like "covert action," and it was almost inevitable that there would be bureaucratic friction between the CIA and the DNI's office.

It is certainly true that an independent assessment of the value of any given sensitive intelligence activity is probably warranted. And it is also true that the CIA is not always the best judge of whether its own programs are effective. But, that doesn't necessarily mean that the DNI should be conducting those reviews. If anything, as the term "sensitive" suggests, what really counts is the policy impact and/or policy problems those activities generate--something folks at places like the National Security Council, which deals in policy, are better positioned to assess. As a Hill staffer notes, Blair's efforts risk "getting into the [operational] weeds when the DNI should be looking at overarching management issues." Or, as another congressional source noted, "It seems like the DNI is getting involved in the same things that led the [CIA director] to lose focus." Blair "wants to be the intelligence briefer, wants to go to all the meetings, wants to run chiefs of station, and wants to manage covert action." Understandable, but not necessarily the best thing for U.S. intelligence.

Which brings us back to the original problem that provided impetus for overhauling the structure of U.S. intelligence in the wake of 9/11: the failure of agencies within the intelligence community to share information with each other and with the law enforcement community. It was a "connect-the-dots" problem with few dots being shared. But one didn't need to create an intelligence czar to fix information sharing. Creating the all-agency Counterterrorism Center and issuing new directives on what had to be shared would have been (and has been) sufficient.

But folks in Washington were bound and determined to use the attacks on 9/11 to do to the intelligence community what they had done to the Pentagon and military services with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. They wanted to streamline U.S. intelligence--in essence, create a more hierarchical, less fractionalized community--yet do so without ever asking themselves whether that reform would actually fix what was wrong with U.S. intelligence.

Which brings us to the second big problem--the one far less commented on--that there were not actually all that many dots to connect in the first place. Would the new structure address the fact that the CIA simply wasn't very good at recruiting the assets we needed or that the FBI's law-enforcement mentality was not a good fit for the war on terror? No, but, then again, solving those problems would have required more "root and branch" reforms that neither Congress nor the Bush White House was interested in tackling in 2004. Easier to create a czar, draw new lines and boxes, and call it a day.

So, what we have now are turf fights and an ever-more layered intelligence bureaucracy. Maybe it won't really matter as long as those big problems get fixed and stay fixed. I suspect, however, that real intelligence reform is less likely when the boss at the top is even more removed from the agencies that might need changing. It could be that Blair's preoccupation with asserting his office's authority is a prelude to his using it to truly fix what ails U.S. intelligence. But I wouldn't bet the house on it.

Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.