Time to rethink spy chief
July 6th, 2011
Does the United States really need an Office of the Director of National Intelligence to protect itself?
After all, Gen. David Petraeus, the most-lauded U.S. general in two generations, was confirmed by the Senate as CIA director June 30, and Leon Panetta — widely regarded as one of the most effective managers-who-is-also-a-Democrat — was sworn in as defense secretary July 1. The U.S. now has the national security dream team overseeing the vast majority of its intelligence community.
Better yet, there’s now a military man at the CIA and an intelligence guy at the Defense Department — so Petraeus and Panetta have a deep understanding of the other’s organization. Do they really need James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence, telling them how to “get along”? The answer, clearly, is no. The ODNI was a bad idea that hasn’t improved with age.
This isn’t meant as an attack on Clapper, a career intelligence officer who has succeeded in multiple government capacities. But between the twin Beltway behemoths of Petraeus and Panetta, Clapper — theoretically in charge of the U.S. intelligence bureaucracy — stands little chance of making his voice heard.
In just about any future high-stakes institutional knife fight between the ODNI and the Pentagon or the CIA, Clapper, armed with only a glut of midlevel bureaucrats and ever-expanding stacks of memoranda, is likely to get cut to ribbons.
It also remains unclear whether the ODNI has overcome the problems that have plagued it since the beginning. In 2009 (long before Clapper took over), the organization’s inspector general released a fiery report, noting that the new office had failed to live up to its mission. Among the damning conclusions was that “the majority of the ODNI and [intelligence community] employees [including many senior officials] … were unable to articulate a clear understanding of the ODNI’s mission, roles and responsibilities.”
In addition, other intelligence agencies complained that the ODNI “sends duplicative taskings and conflicting messages, … thereby undermining the ODNI’s credibility and fueling assertions that the ODNI is just an ‘additional layer of bureaucracy.’”
Perhaps Clapper has stanched the rapidly expanding bureaucratic hemorrhage the report revealed. But even the casual reader could see that the problems are largely systemic — not something that a change at the top can easily fix.
Congress should revisit the legislation that created the ODNI and re-evalutate its official mission to “forge an intelligence community that delivers the most insightful intelligence possible.”
It isn’t working that way now — and never has.
One reason is its hasty, ill-considered conception. In the rush to answer the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, Congress made a serious mistake — the committees responsible for the final language of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act did not have jurisdiction over the intelligence communities, did not know how the intelligence budgets worked and were under tremendous pressure to deliver legislation that would pass the president’s desk.
As a result, a number of politically expedient but unworkable solutions became real, complicating and permanently hamstringing the ODNI.
First, the existing legislation states that the organization’s director has responsibility for “overseeing and directing” the national intelligence budget. But the director does not actually get to spend the money. Meanwhile, the secretary of defense and CIA director command vast operational organizations — the ones charged with executing our national security policy.
Money talks in Washington — like everywhere else. So any way you count it, Clapper commands a budget that isn’t even a rounding error in comparison with the others. Moreover, the intelligence bureaucracy has struggled with auditability and has had difficulty balancing its books, operating under the fog of secrecy to justify a great many questionable expenditures.
Under these circumstances, can the ODNI really oversee and direct intelligence budgets in a meaningful way?
Second, the Intelligence Reform Act makes the director of national intelligence the “principal adviser to the president” for intelligence matters. This is — and has always been — not true.
Panetta and Petraeus both have armies of analysts who can bring them the latest intelligence on a whole array of issues. In contrast, Clapper has a limited number of analysts, who mostly focus on counterterrorism. In addition, his information is completely culled from other agencies — including the CIA, FBI and the Pentagon.
So who is the president really going to turn to as his intelligence adviser across the entire range of national security challenges? Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have mostly turned to the CIA and the Defense Department, not the ODNI.
That’s not to say there’s no role for an independent intelligence organization. There are a number of possibilities. For example, it could get out of the programmatic intelligence work and become a cadre of elite “superanalysts,” a semi-public think tank that could provide “red team” analysis, untethered from the other intelligence agencies. Or it could increase its oversight function and take a hard look at cross-agency intelligence programs to eliminate redundancies — without being beholden to any particular one.
It could also focus on improving the business of intelligence collection, by reviewing failures and successes for lessons learned.
Clapper deserves credit for trying to make sense of a difficult job. But he cannot build on an unstable foundation.
We have a historic opportunity with Panetta and Petraeus to re-envision intelligence cooperation. Let’s take this moment to remodel the ODNI as well.
Mieke Eoyang, director of the National Security Program at Third Way, previously served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and as the defense policy adviser to Sen. Ted Kennedy. Aki Peritz, a senior national security policy adviser at Third Way, served as a former government counterterrorism intelligence analyst.