Shadow Government

Spy vs. Spy (Washington bureaucratic knife-fight edition)

By Philip Zelikow A recent New York Times story and today’s column by David Ignatius have surfaced a dispute between the DNI and the director of the CIA about responsibilities for the selection of the "chief of station" at overseas posts.  (Tradtionally the chief of station is the senior CIA official at the post and ...

By Philip Zelikow

A recent New York Times story and today’s column by David Ignatius have surfaced a dispute between the DNI and the director of the CIA about responsibilities for the selection of the "chief of station" at overseas posts.  (Tradtionally the chief of station is the senior CIA official at the post and oversees intelligence liaison relationships and operations in that country, as part of the country team headed by the ambassador.)

The DNI wishes to be able to select the head intelligence community representative in the country. The CIA director wants to retain his traditional authority to appoint all station chiefs. Ignatius argues, defending the CIA position, that the CIA does overseas operations and liaison relationships, so the CIA ought to look after the station chiefs.

The White House will ultimately settle this dispute. I write only to help readers understand why this issue is more complicated than one might think after reading the Ignatius argument.

First, overseas operations are much more than the human intelligence (HUMINT) collection that CIA manages. In some countries, the main overseas work — and staffing to support it — may concern signals intelligence or other technical operations that are managed by the National Security Agency or the National Reconnaissance Office, among others. In some cases the HUMINT role may also be eclipsed by defense intelligence relationships that are usually looked after by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the embassy’s Defense Attache (which involves a set of challenging coordination problems in its own right). Then there are FBI/Legatt issues, Treasury issues, DHS issues, and so on.

Second, even where the CIA’s role is large, even dominant, for the intelligence mission being carried out in the country, the CIA’s role is rarely the whole story. Thus the station chief needs to be an interagency manager on behalf of the intelligence community, or else that job will be bumped to the ambassador or, more likely, get bumped back to Washington. In Washington, the DNI has significant authority to resolve the turf battles, but may not have direct authority over the station chief who should have been part of the solution, not part of the problem. Usually interagency issues are worked out pretty effectively in the field. But there are problem cases. Since the station chief should really be the representative of the intelligence community, not just a representative of one component of it, the DNI has a legitimate concern to ensure that station chiefs are appointed and managed in a way that conforms with their responsibility.

Third, it is the DNI’s responsibility to manage the foreign liaison relationships. These relationships are a huge — and little known — dimension of U.S. intelligence policy of every kind. Having learned some lessons from years of initial experience with the new DNI structure, the U.S. government sought to clarify responsibility for managing these foreign relationships. After months of arguments and drafting exercises (involving the current Secretary of Defense and former CIA director, among others), the result was codified last year in a presidential Executive Order 13470 (30 July 2008). 

That order states that the DNI "may enter into intelligence and counterintelligence arrangements and agreements with foreign governments and international organizations." The DNI "shall formulate policies concerning intelligence and counterintelligence arrangements and agreements with foreign governments and international organizations." The DNI "shall align and synchronize intelligence and counterintelligence foreign relationships among the elements of the Intelligence Community to further United States national security, policy, and intelligence objectives."

So one can see why the DNI might feel some responsibility for the appointment of the intelligence community’s overseas representatives. President Obama is certainly free to rewrite this executive order. If he and his advisers think it is worth their time to revisit this Executive Order, they will learn a lot about why it was written this way.

The most worrisome aspect of the current dispute is not its substance. It is an interesting problem, but there are several ways to work it out. One solution might draw on the role of the Secretary of State to the selection of ambassadors. The Secretary always recommends, usually gets her wish, but does not have the final power of decision.

Instead, the troubling aspect of the case is what it appears to say about the relationship between the DNI and the CIA director. That relationship is vital to the effectiveness of the intelligence community. Even before Obama took office, experience had shown why a president should take the time to be sure his appointees in these two positions work well together and understand their respective roles in the broader system.

Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.

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