Is it even worth having a director of national intelligence?
Late last Friday — always an ominous time to make news — President Trump announced the nomination of Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to become director of national intelligence, or DNI. Ratcliffe’s name was floated for DNI last summer, and things didn’t go smoothly. Smooth doesn’t magically appear just because you try again … so we’ll see if he makes it this time.
But while Ratcliffe’s nomination triggers the hyperpartisan nonsense we’ve grown accustomed to, it also provides an opportunity to reflect on a deeper question: Has the DNI proven to be a value add in its 15 years of existence? Is it a position that’s worth keeping?
An argument can be made that the DNI role has never fully exercised the authorities and marching orders it was originally given. And if it hasn’t, what good is it?
This is important because one of the largest money sucks in the entire federal budget drains into the intelligence community (IC), ostensibly led by the Office of the DNI (ODNI). Most of the budget for what is known as the National Intelligence Program is classified, and so it’s difficult to measure return on investment for all that cash. The IC likes that just fine.
Here’s why: Since the end of World War II and the birth of a more formal foreign intelligence apparatus within the executive branch, massive amounts of money have been spent on spectacular intelligence failures that have cost lives, damaged the United States’s reputation abroad, left us blindsided and vulnerable to extraordinary dangers, and led us into questionable wars.
Conversely, and in fairness, the IC also produces vitally important, indispensable results on a daily basis, produced by true patriots, that will never be fully known or appreciated by the American people and that help this nation remain relatively secure and strong.
History has shown that the collection and accurate analysis of intelligence has been incredibly challenging and far from pure science. It can be likened more to the placement of bets at a roulette table. Intelligence decisions, of course, were animated by more than simple chance, but the outcomes have been decidedly hit-or-miss.
Misses have been particularly painful and stretch back decades. From the Bay of Pigs debacle to the Vietnam War, to mistakes that gave rise to the ayatollahs and rabid Islamic terrorism, to failed interferences in Latin America, to the misreading of the end of the Cold War, to the horror of 9/11, to the failed intelligence justifying an invasion of Iraq or the slow reaction to China’s prodigious tech kleptomania, all have cost us trillions of taxpayer dollars.
Is it, therefore, unfair to ask, “Are we doing this right? Are we getting the bang for our considerable buck? Are there any indications that the relatively new cabinet level position of DNI is reducing the risk of continued intelligence failures?”
Keep in mind that the intelligence mission of the 17 agencies making up the IC, exists solely to inform the president and his senior policymakers so that optimal decisions can be made while carrying out foreign relations. The IC is a means to an end. It is not, despite the attitudes and actions of a few IC seniors, an end unto itself.
The president is popularly elected pursuant to a political mandate and foreign policy vision. Therefore, any hysteria about a biased or partisan DNI selection is baloney. All presidents logically want folks in leadership roles within the IC to align with their particular agenda. (An exception is the FBI which, because of its domestic-facing responsibilities and constitutional constraints, must remain neutral and objective. We have seen the danger and chaos that stems from politically biased FBI leadership.)
President Trump’s DNI nominee, John Ratcliffe, is certainly a partisan; all congressmen are. Some object to the fact that his exposure to the intelligence world is limited to the House Intelligence Committee on which he serves. As a former U.S. attorney in Texas, he would not have had any significant involvement in foreign intelligence matters.
But the lack of deep Intelligence Community experience is not necessarily a wholly bad thing. The IC can get clubby and myopic, losing sight of its first mission to serve the sitting president rather than itself. An outsider can ask hard questions, and that makes some in the IC nervous; they’d prefer to see one of their own nominated.
If successful, Congressman Ratcliffe should first examine whether the DNI role is fully living up to its original intent and design. He will find that it isn’t. Then he’ll need to determine if it can.
The DNI position was created in reaction to 9/11, which exposed single-threaded intelligence reporting and analysis flowing to the president mostly from the perspective of one agency, the CIA, without adequate integrated input of pertinent intelligence collected by other IC agencies.
In classic government agency fashion, the ODNI quickly self-bloated, requesting 1,500 highest-salaried Senior Executive Service (SES) billets and becoming a promotions playground for the IC. For comparison purposes, the FBI, 20 times larger, has 200 to 300 SES positions with, one could argue, much clearer return on investment.
The DNI was established by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The law gave the DNI a particularly powerful authority that has rarely, if ever, been exercised. The DNI was given broad authority to move allocated intelligence funding among the IC agencies, to ensure the best results. It’s this authority that justifies the DNI’s seat in the Cabinet.
In other words, the DNI can take from the weak and give to the strong in order to discourage disappointing, wasteful agency behaviors and results while rewarding top-performing programs and initiatives. In theory, it’s our best protection against future, costly intelligence failures. But it’s an authority that’s not being used meaningfully. The DNI has a bat that doesn’t get swung.
To be sure, the ODNI has added some tangible value, helping to define for the IC the major intelligence goals all agencies should work toward while standardizing intelligence requirements, collection, analysis and training. But those things can be done by some council, rather than the top-heavy structure the ODNI has become; they are not Cabinet-level functions.
So the question becomes, what good is the position of DNI other than as another layer of underperforming bureaucracy?
Perhaps Congressman Ratcliffe, if confirmed despite current headwinds, can accomplish something truly nonpartisan and radical: He can downsize the role of DNI to the level it should be if it is not going to exercise the authorities it was given under the law, or he can act like a DNI the law originally envisioned and create greater accountability for good results.
Short of any of that, maybe he should be the last DNI.
Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.