Shadow Government

The Office of the DNI’s Greatest Hits

Assessing the office of the director of national intelligence.


Al Qaeda’s daring attack on September 11, 2001 was the first successful surprise attack against our country since Pearl Harbor. This national tragedy understandably provoked extensive investigation, recrimination, and self-examination with the shared goal of improving our government’s ability to detect and prevent future attacks on the homeland. Perhaps the most tangible symbol of post-9/11 government reform, the position of director of national intelligence (DNI) marks its tenth anniversary this month.

The DNI post was the centerpiece of landmark legislation enacted in 2004, informed by the findings and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Presidential, legislative, and bureaucratic politics all contributed to a compromise law that sought to improve information sharing and strengthen central leadership of our sprawling intelligence enterprise without infringing upon existing military and departmental chains of command. Ten years of experience offers an opportunity to take stock and ask whether the government is smarter and the country is safer as a result of these changes.

There have been several celebrated, and many less visible, intelligence successes in the last decade. Our military, intelligence agencies, and an informal alliance of foreign security services, deserve credit for degrading al Qaeda’s core leadership and preventing a second catastrophic attack. Many factors contributed to this success. Immediately after 9/11, the intelligence agencies began sharing information more freely and collaborating in new and unprecedented ways. Large and sustained increases to intelligence budgets funded an expanded overseas presence, new collection programs, and lethal covert action tools. Policymakers demanded and defended aggressive operations and risk taking after 9/11. Al Qaeda’s leaders had fewer opportunities to plot attacks as they struggled to survive.

Legislative reform, however, was not universally welcomed in our tradition-bound intelligence community, and the 2004 law’s implementation was initially fitful and uneven. Because of the speed at which the legislation moved through congress, and the compromises required to achieve its passage, disagreements over the appropriate role of the DNI were masked by ambiguous language and left to the executive branch to resolve. Each of the four directors has pursued a distinct vision, prolonging debate on whether the new leader’s charge was to unify and direct, integrate, or merely coordinate the work of America’s (now) seventeen intelligence agencies.

While final judgment on the impact of the post-9/11 intelligence reforms may be premature, we can offer several observations and tentative conclusions.

First, the DNI is not the intelligence community’s “quarterback,” as envisioned by some of the post’s early boosters. He does not plan and execute sensitive intelligence collection and covert action operations. Rather, the DNI has sought to provide strategic direction and exploited a natural “convening authority” to bring the community’s disparate agencies together to confront shared challenges. Today’s DNI staff acknowledges its principal role is to help the community solve problems that individual agencies are unwilling or unable to tackle alone. For example, the current DNI’s signature project seeks to draw agencies into a common information technology architecture that will facilitate data sharing and potentially save money. To achieve complex, enterprise-wide change like this, a DNI may be required at various stages to coordinate, persuade, and, on occasion, direct.

Second, the DNI’s authority to determine the intelligence budget is his greatest source of power, but the limits of that power have not been tested. For most years since 9/11, intelligence budgets were rising and therefore fewer trade-offs and hard choices were required. Faced with sharply declining budgets in recent years, the DNI exercised his authority to mitigate automatic cuts to personnel, research and development, and cyber capabilities. He was required to balance the preservation of current capabilities against investments in the future. If intelligence budgets continue to decline, the DNI may be forced to make other fundamental choices — for example, between human and technical collection programs, or between decades-long satellite acquisitions and quicker “fly and replace” overhead platforms.

Third, the DNI is emerging as the U.S. intelligence community’s public voice to communicate with the American public and Congress. The current DNI stepped forward to explain why surveillance programs were needed and how they would be changing in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures. A predecessor publicly championed updates to obsolete laws regulating electronic surveillance and the strengthening of core cyber capabilities. Congress has already engaged the DNI to inform its deliberations on whether commitments made by Iran in the nuclear agreement under negotiation can be effectively monitored and verified.

Finally, the 2004 law established the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). This new center, housed within the DNI’s office, plays a crucial role in merging terror threat information from all sources. NCTC has not, as some reformers (perhaps unrealistically) expected, displaced the White House or other agencies in planning and directing actions to disrupt imminent terror plots. Recognizing NCTC’s contributions, the president recently directed the DNI to establish a new center, modeled on NCTC, that will integrate cyber threat information.

This DNI is pursuing closer integration of U.S. intelligence, principally through management reforms. The DNI markets services of common concern like the consolidated IT system, uniform accounting and audit standards, and disciplined technology acquisitions. Such projects, too easily dismissed as mere bureaucratic “plumbing,” are important because they can make future cooperation cheaper, easier, and more routine. The DNI’s appointment of national intelligence managers on topics like Iran, China, and cyber, also promotes integration and effectiveness. Perhaps most importantly, the DNI can and must promote long-term cultural change by insisting that mid-level officers complete “joint-duty” assignments outside their home agencies to earn promotions. This legislative mandate was modeled on a similar provision in the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols defense reform law that has been widely credited with improving our joint war-fighting prowess. There are signs that a “culture of integration” is taking hold — in particular, in the foreign field where intelligence officers from multiple agencies often work in close proximity against shared objectives.

These observations illustrate both the promise and the limitations of the DNI. The new position is neither as dominant as some early supporters had hoped nor as disruptive as its detractors warned.

Because presidents have unique influence over the size, shape, and activities of the intelligence community, the ultimate fate of the post-9/11 reforms will rest with future occupants of the Oval Office. If the next president demands that the intelligence agencies work together under the DNI’s leadership, we can expect continued incremental improvement and success. The alternative is backsliding into old habits that may result in weakened collection, information hoarding, and renewed tribalism. As the 2016 presidential election approaches, one key question for candidates is how they intend to use our large, highly capable, but still “federated” intelligence enterprise.

Our intelligence must continuously improve to prevent attacks and advance U.S. interests globally. The changes made in 2004 to the structure of our intelligence community can contribute to that goal. The gains made, and lessons learned, by the DNI over the past decade provide a solid foundation for continued progress toward the intelligence enterprise our country needs and deserves.

We are slowly getting smarter about a world that is rapidly becoming less safe for America, its citizens, and our national interests.

The essay’s text was approved by CIA’s Publication Review Board.

Photo Credit: Bryan Thomas / Stringer

Stephen Slick is a former member of the CIA's clandestine service, special assistant to President George W. Bush, and senior director for intelligence programs and reform on the National Security Council staff.

Michael Allen was a special assistant to the president in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, the former majority staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and is managing partner of Beacon Global Strategies in Washington, D.C.