When Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, it did so to better protect the American people from the breakdown of vital intelligence that left our nation vulnerable on that infamous morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Administrative coordination of the various intelligence agencies—a key provision of the law—was met with initial skepticism, but a post-9/11 world required new approaches to preserve our national security.
Regrettably, the internecine turf wars that formerly compromised our intelligence community show signs of new life. This time around, the conflict involves Adm. Dennis Blair, President Obama’s national intelligence director and a highly-decorated Pacific fleet commander, and Leon Panetta, a seasoned and immensely competent Washington insider who now leads the Central Intelligence Agency.
The New York Times reported on June 9 that Blair issued a directive in May announcing his intention to handpick every overseas senior intelligence officer. Panetta responded, staking out the exclusive and historic province of the CIA to install station chiefs. The disagreement quickly hit fever pitch, and senior administration officials have now been summoned to mediate a truce.
As a fundamental matter, the law specifically prohibits the director of national intelligence from concurrently serving as the director of the CIA. While this distinction may seem academic, it underscores a clear congressional intent to differentiate intelligence gathering from intelligence coordination. In other words, the business of spying must reside within the CIA and intelligence gathering entities.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created to “oversee the coordination of the relationships between elements of the intelligence community and the intelligence or security services of foreign governments.” According to the law, the position is one designed to harmonize—not disrupt—the interrelationship of various intelligence agencies.
The CIA director, on the other hand, “shall coordinate the relationships between elements of the intelligence community and the intelligence or security services of foreign governments . . . on all matters involving intelligence related to the national security or involving intelligence acquired through clandestine means.”
The distinction couldn’t be more apparent. Director Blair is charged with the administrative oversight of the intelligence community. Director Panetta is charged with the active “command and control” of the CIA’s foreign intelligence officers.
Director Blair’s strategic office must resist the urge to assert command and control of the intelligence community in violation of both the letter and spirit of the law that created it. But that could be a tall order for a man who’s earned his stripes—and his stars—by demonstrating those skills through years of naval command.
The challenges are there for Director Panetta too—from the burden of reinvigorating an agency hard hit in a current climate of congressional accusation to working within a legal framework that potentially buffers his direct access to the president. Panetta’s strengths—the ability to direct the traffic of government at both the Office and Management and Budget and as White House chief of staff—are naturally predisposed to coordination and administration.
In this instance, the Obama administration has selected two outstanding and experienced leaders to serve America’s national security interests. If internal conflicts now threaten the effective coordination of these interests, the president may need to intervene personally and reorganize his national security team. Perhaps Panetta, with his vast administrative and political experience, is better suited as DNI while Blair, with his extensive background as a commander, would thrive at the CIA.
Such organizational shakeups and senior-level swaps within an administration are common in presidential history. Indeed, they are often a sign of good and efficient management skills that ensure the nation’s top leaders are assigned the most suitable roles.
With two wars to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with too many terrorist cells preparing for new attacks on the United States and our allies, the Obama administration must take every effort to prevent the type of stovepiping that undercut our strategic defenses, damaged the morale of frontline agents, and exposed the nation to the nefarious acts of 19 terrorists armed with box cutters and a few weeks of domestic flight school.