Can a strong DNI save the intelligence community?

Dennis Blair's resignation as Director of National Intelligence is leading lawmakers to call for a stronger mandate and more power for the DNI position.  But will that help the intelligence community to function more effectively? Photo: The Washington TImes


Seal of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

It wasn’t Admiral Blair’s fault.  Not really.  The fact that Admiral Blair resigned as Director of National Intelligence, probably with a push, was more about the haunted, hollow position than about anything Blair did.  He may not have succeeded in his job, but that is probably because the job has been set up so that no one can succeed.

As the position is now defined, the DNI has little real power, it is set up to compete directly with the head of the CIA, and it operates under an unclear mandate.

Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence when it passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.  The impetus for that act was to revamp the intelligence agencies and create a method of information sharing among agencies to avoid another September 11th.  The idea was good – to share information better – but the implementation did not solve the problem. 

Before Congress created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the CIA was also, and primarily, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).  The position was responsible for overseeing and coordinating the entire intelligence community.  In other words, before there was a DNI, the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) did the things the DNI was set up to do.  It wasn’t that the position didn’t exist; it was simply that it was housed in the CIA.

The DNI has questionable power.  It doesn’t head any of the major intelligence organizations, and there is an unclear reporting order from the intelligence organizations to the DNI.  The DNI is supposed to be in charge, but so is the head of the CIA.  This leads to conflicts and turf battles, with the President forced to mediate between the two organizations.  The situation is worse because Leon Panetta, who currently heads the CIA, is a powerful individual in Washington and has earned President Obama’s trust.  Panetta won several battles with Blair, further eroding the power of the job. 

While the DNI has a mandate on paper, in practice, that role is unclear.  What exactly is the DNI office supposed to do that the other agencies don’t do?

 Since Blair’s departure, there has been consensus that the position has problems.  Without a clear job description and strong power, the position is difficult at best.  Lawmakers are considering providing the position with more statutory power.  They are also trying to understand why President Obama reportedly lost confidence in Blair and instead relied on other individuals as his primary intelligence consultants, one of the jobs of the DNI.

Of course, neither Congress nor a statute can require a president to trust – or primarily rely on – one advisor over another.  The influence of the DCI has varied greatly over administrations.  Some administrations have chosen not to receive a daily briefing from the CIA, while others consulted continuously with the DCI and even with individual analysts.  The influence of an office or an individual depends on personalities, histories, and other factors, not on the mandates of a position.

 The larger issues is whether a DNI can resolve the problems the intelligence community faced before 9/11 and help coordinate information from all the different agencies.  The issue is not the need for another manager or supervisor.  It’s not even another agency to “connect the dots.”  The fix is in finding a way to share information effectively among agencies.  Right now, turf battles, differing goals, jealousies, lack of trust, and compartmentalization hamper any integrated intelligence sharing, and until those issues are resolved, information will not cross agency lines and get to the analyst who can make sense of all of it.

Take, for example, the CIA and the FBI.  CIA case officers recruit sources and collect information.  They can’t arrest anyone, and don’t want to.  They want to obtain actionable intelligence to pass to decision makers.  Case officers get promoted by recruiting sources.  FBI officers, on the other hand, investigate and solve crimes.  They arrest criminals.  They get promoted based on closing cases and making arrests.

So what happens when a CIA officer gets a source with access to information on terrorist activities?  The source is, most likely, a member of a terrorist organization or connected to the terrorists in some way.  The terrorist target is difficult, so if an officer can get a source with good information, it’s gold.  If the CIA officer shares that information with an FBI officer, the FBI may want to arrest that individual for terrorist activities or arrest the people the source provided information on.  The CIA officer may believe that the low-level crimes the source has reported on are not significant enough to disrupt the source and end the flow of information.  There is an inherent conflict. 

Even within organizations, there is a lack of trust.  In the CIA, for example, the collectors of information – the case officers – often view the individuals who analyze the information – the analysts – with distrust.  Analysts are not privy to certain information on sources and methods.  …And both the analyst and the case officer are from the same organization. 

The cultures, the goals, and the methods of the varying intelligence organizations currently do not encourage cooperation.  That, not the oversight provided by the DNI, is the real issue hampering a fully-effective intelligence community.

Before searching out a new DNI, Congress and the White House would do well to take a hard look at the current intelligence structure and identify ways to eliminate the barriers to cooperation.  What we really need is not a Director of National Intelligence, but a true, cohesive, intelligence community. 

Lisa has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from George Mason University and a graduate degree in Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia.  She spent 11 years as an analyst with the federal government.  She is part owner of a research and analysis company, C2 Research, LLC, which specializes in complex research and analysis.  Lisa is also a freelance writer, contributing to Donne Tempo Magazine.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

Contact Lisa M. Ruth


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