Director of national intelligence shortfalls: Is it the man or the mission?

Director of national intelligence shortfalls: Is it the man or the mission?

Pundits have had a feeding frenzy over the fact that President Obama chose to replace Admiral Dennis Blair with another soldier, General James Clapper, as director of national intelligence (DNI). But that’s a minor point compared to the unfinished business of intelligence reform and the question of presidential interest.

Blair was reportedly sacked for a blunt "take charge" attitude didn’t fit the coordinating role envisioned for the DNI when it was created in 2004. He clashed with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta over authority to name station chiefs overseas, deliver the president’s daily intelligence brief, and other matters such as training.

Such conflicts are likely when a new bureaucracy is created to assume some of the functions of an existing one without broad systemic adjustments. Funny it didn’t happen sooner, except Blair’s two predecessors, John Negroponte and Admiral John "Mike" McConnell worked fairly diplomatically with the leaders of the16 civilian and military agencies that make up the intelligence community. And, they had the backing of the president who appointed them. Still, Gen. Clapper will be the fourth DNI in 5 years.  

So, it’s fair to ask whether creating the DNI post was the right move. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, policymakers and security experts wanted to know what caused America’s intelligence failures. The 9/11 Commission concluded the CIA Director had too much on his plate. He had to run his own shop, brief the president, and coordinate programs among all the other agencies across government.  

The Commission proposed splitting off the briefing and coordinating roles. Congress agreed.  The DNI became the president’s chief intelligence advisor, retaining authority over policies and budgets, and monitoring intelligence community performance, particularly on issues that involve sharing across agencies. The DNI also began supervising counterterrorism programs in the subordinate National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), another function once performed by the CIA.  

All this took place against the backdrop of 1990s-era CIA budget cutbacks and operational restraints that drove away talent and prevented information sharing between foreign affairs agencies and domestic law enforcement. Over the last decade, Congress has restored some of the resources needed for the CIA to recover lost capabilities. However, one wonders if more timely CIA reforms and stronger leadership could have avoided the need to create another layer in the national security bureaucracy.   

Like the old Director of Central Intelligence, the DNI has an internal shop to protect.  With some 1,500 employees, it is nowhere near the size of the CIA (about 20,000), or Pentagon agencies that consume 70 percent of the intelligence budget. Yet, if the CIA director couldn’t wear three hats and see the big picture, how can the Director of National Intelligence with similar responsibilities do much better?  

Other reforms have slipped by the wayside. Both the 9/11 Commission and Congressional Research Service reports have highlighted the erratic nature of Congressional oversight.  Fragmented jurisdictions in House and Senate committees still foil efforts to strategically balance resources and hamper cooperative working relations among agencies. Temporary committee assignments that contribute to member turnover limit the development of committee subject matter expertise. So far, Congress has made minimal efforts to address these concerns.  

If General Clapper is the capable, knowledgeable public servant and facilitator that his resume suggests, the fact that he will be another soldier in a supposedly civilian position should not cloud his confirmation prospects. Yet for him to succeed, the president must make him a trusted member of his national security team and take an interest in the unfinished business of intelligence reform. It’s hard to know how much faith President Obama ever placed in Admiral Blair, or whether he cared much about how the intelligence system worked.   

But he should care now. The DNI and staff could benefit from some structural streamlining to ensure impartiality in overseeing intelligence community programs — which probably means shedding some operational aspects of the Office of the DNI and the NCTC to other agencies.Without needlessly duplicating existing capabilities, the DNI should be able to advise the president to ensure that our nation’s varied intelligence services are properly chartered, resourced, and mutually supportive. Congress can help by modernizing its oversight as well.