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The risk of a politicized national intelligence director

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President George W. Bush signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Act into law some 15 years ago, creating the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the National Counterterrorism Center and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. Designed to increase collaboration and transparency across the Intelligence Community (IC), the reality has been greater competition for resources and increased bureaucracy. More grave is the ODNI’s potential to be politically weaponized, as some argue Attorney General William Barr has done with the Department of Justice. 

The ODNI was conceived to address inherent flaws that the 9/11 Commission believed had accounted for the tragedy’s intelligence failure. Recommendations focused on six principal weaknesses, foremost of which was reforming structural barriers and addressing the lack of common standards and practices to pool overseas information with that collected domestically. 

The commission highlighted the IC’s divided management and weak capacity to set priorities or move resources and judged it handicapped from overcoming systemic challenges to holistic approaches. The CIA director’s multiple, and often competing, roles managing the overall IC  while serving as the president’s principal intelligence adviser was judged inefficient. Likewise, the IC’s complex authorities and overly secretive funding was judged to be cumbersome and requiring greater transparency. 

The commission sought to empower the ODNI with cross-cutting responsibilities to promote greater insight, efficiency and IC cohesion. The office would oversee new national intelligence centers providing all-source analysis helping the incumbent to plan operations across the IC. These centers were intended to provide community-wide insight, but not compete with existing agencies or impose additional bureaucracy. The ODNI would serve as the president’s principal intelligence adviser so as to offer greater balance in synthesizing advice from the IC’s principals. Control over the entire IC budget would increase the director’s leverage, as would responsibility for approving and nominating the IC’s leaders.

As it turned out, while the ODNI administratively prepares and submits the overall budget, it has no say in how the various IC agencies justify or expend their resources. The director’s only budgetary authority is over ODNI’s centers and the CIA, and even that is limited. The Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office all remain well ensconced within the defense secretary’s orbit; the FBI, Treasury and Department of Homeland Security answer only to their own agency heads. 

In the new construct, the CIA director, under secretary of Defense for Intelligence, and the FBI’s executive assistant director for intelligence were expected to serve as the DNI’s three deputies. This would assure compliance in executing the direction over their respective agencies. IC agencies acquiesced at most to detailing a senior intelligence service graded officer, but none of their leaders. And at least for the CIA, particularly at the senior grades, the ODNI is where careers go to die.

The 9/11 Commission worried that the DNI would suffer from a potentially weaker base of support absent its own agency. Addressing this possibility, the commission recommended the DNI be granted authority over intelligence collection inside the United States. The FBI aggressively protected its turf and, over the course of often heated exchanges with Congress, fought off both the DNI’s encroachment as well as calls for a new domestic intelligence service.

The 9/11 Commission’s well-intended vision underestimated turf battles and operational realities.  For starters, the DNI was never going to achieve the CIA director’s depth to successfully function as the president’s primary intelligence adviser. The CIA director interacts daily with the agency’s operational and analytical executives and experts, and so tracks not only the finished analytical products but more substantively, the raw intelligence and operational field cables.

Proposed to streamline and complement the existing agencies, rather than grow into an empire, the ODNI added yet three more “centers” addressing counterproliferation, counterintelligence and cyber. Additionally, it expanded the number of national intelligence officers and created an entirely new layer of bureaucracy with national intelligence managers.

While the DNI lacks the broad IC control for which it was conceived, it accrued enough authority, scope and staffing to make it dangerous. Some DNIs, such as James Clapper and Dan Coats, have conducted themselves in a professional, bipartisan manner with the best interests of the country, the IC and its workforce in mind, respecting the spirit of their duties, as well as the authorities. Will we always be so fortunate? What if they behaved as Barr has done at Justice?

The DNI geographically leads the IC professionals from the rear, unlike their own collocated agency heads, limiting interaction. The dynamic encourages greater focus on the president and the White House political agenda. With the power to stovepipe alternative points of view and spin the intelligence, rather than facilitate inclusion and top cover, the wrong director could compromise the IC’s capacity to securely collect vital intelligence and speak the truth. 

If politicized, the DNI could employ the office’s rather extensive powers to restrict dissemination of potentially unfavorable or embarrassing intelligence. Deprived of such insights, analysts would unintentionally render incomplete and thus inaccurate assessments, and decision-makers would be blinded from lurking dangers. The DNI could even declassify and release sensitive reporting streams to settle a president’s political scores and compromise collection of information that otherwise might undermine controversial policies, an aim for which Barr has been accused.

There’s a constructive role for the DNI to quality-control IC collaboration, measure its effectiveness, and provide a safety net for catching that which otherwise might fall through the cracks. Redefining the ODNI’s role and authorities to mitigate the risk of potential abuse would assure that the office preserves, rather than threatens, the IC’s integrity and ability to serve the American people.

Douglas London, a retired senior CIA operations officer, is an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. He served 34 years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service, including several chief of station assignments and as a headquarters executive manager. Follow him on Twitter @douglaslondon5.

Tags 9/11 Commission CIA Dan Coats James Clapper Office of the Director of National Intelligence US intelligence community William Barr

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