2014 shaping up for a major debate on the role of the DNI

Dec. 17 marks the nine-year anniversary of the signing into law of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 by President George W. Bush. It was, and continues to be, a landmark piece of legislation that has defined the nation’s post-9/11 counterterrorism intelligence organization, policies and procedures.

But 2014 will bring more than a new anniversary for the law and its main creation — the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Next July, a decade after the release of the 9/11 Commission report, the nation will enter a critical time of reflection on this thing that has become known as the “war on terrorism” and will begin asking tough questions about the future of the U.S. intelligence community.

James Clapper Defense Secretary Robert Gates shakes hands with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper after Gates received the National Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal at the DNI headquarters in McLean, Va., May 25, 2011. (File photo: Cherie Cullen/DOD)

One of the central questions senior policymakers are likely to explore will be the role, responsibilities, authorities and the success or failure to date of the DNI. It is the Office of the DNI, currently occupied by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, that was supposed to bring a semblance of order to a sprawling, unmanageable conglomeration of intelligence agencies. ODNI has more than 1,700 employees and a budget of approximately $1.7 billion.

But according to several former intelligence experts who were present at the creation of the DNI position, Washington has still not come to grips with what roles, responsibilities and authorities the director of national intelligence should have.

It is not a new problem for policymakers, according to the experts, but it is a problem in need of immediate attention — particularly in a nation that refuses to accept any level of risk. To date, there have been four directors of national intelligence, each of whom managed based on their own leadership skill and political access to the White House.

“There remain no clear, easy answers to what intelligence reform looks like,” said Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, which was established in 2004 within and under the direction of the DNI office.

“All four directors have taken significantly different approaches to their role and responsibilities. It remains very much driven by the individuals involved,” Leiter said, speaking Dec. 11 at an event on the future of intelligence reform sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.


James Clapper, the current DNI, was among a small number of officials in the Bush administration who advocated in favor of creating a secretary of intelligence position that would provide the overseer of the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies and nearly $70 billion in purchasing authority with cabinet-level political clout.

But according to former majority staff director for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Michael Allen, and other former senior CIA officers who spoke to FedScoop on condition of anonymity, the Defense Department successfully lobbied against a cabinet-level position for intelligence.

Not only did former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advise the president against it — in one of this famous “snowflake” email memos — but his successor, Robert Gates, turned down an offer to become the DNI because the law was so vague Gates didn’t think he would have enough authority to succeed, according to Allen.

The concept of creating a Department of Intelligence “didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” said Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 commission. “The argument now really is: Is there the energy and will to go for a more aggressive design,” Zelikow said. “Are we at a stage where it’s time for another evolutionary move?”

A former senior CIA officer, who spoke to FedScoop on condition of anonymity, agreed and said the intelligence community may be too big and powerful for anything short of a cabinet-level director.


“The intelligence community has almost tripled in size since 2001,” the former official said. “And the DNI really has become a coordinator of national intelligence position, not a director. It doesn’t direct anything. It coordinates budgetary books.”

President Barack Obama (left) and National Intelligence Director James Clapper (middle) (Photo/Pete Souza/White House) President Barack Obama (left) and National Intelligence Director James Clapper (middle) (Photo: Pete Souza/White House)

And Clapper has received high marks for his ability to do just that — coordinate, prioritize and streamline budgets and investment strategies across the entire intelligence community for the first time since 1947.

“The question is what will the role of the DNI be moving forward,” said the former CIA officer. “And nobody wants to give an answer to that question because nobody wants to cede programmatic power to it.”


For Zelikow, however, even programmatic power may not be enough for a DNI to succeed. “The intelligence establishment is a very difficult establishment to manage [even] in the best case,” he said. “It’s the sheer scale and complexity and compartmentation of the enterprise almost defies managerial comprehension.”

Leiter offered a mixed review of the overall success of the DNI office to date. “How’s the DNI doing? The answer in my view is the DNI is doing some things pretty well,” he said, referring to basic information sharing and the coordination of national intelligence estimates. “Then there are lots of pieces that, frankly, they’re not doing very well. Budget authority is better, but the agencies still absolutely rule their own budgetary roost.”

Even worse, “some elements of the DNI have been, frankly, almost ineffective,” Leiter said, pointing specifically to the program manager for the Information Sharing Environment. “I think they’ve accomplished very, very little. So, I think it’s a mixed bag.”

The former CIA official was not surprised by Leiter’s commentary. “People are expecting a Porsche performance out of a Hyundai,” the official said, referring to the current DNI structure and authorities.

“The question is … did all that empowerment work? My answer is, not all that well,” Leiter said.


All the experts FedScoop talked to agreed the continued revelations of the National Security Agency’s domestic and foreign electronic data collection by several media organization working closely with former NSA contractor Edward Snowden will be a major factor in the discussion of where intelligence reform goes next.

Ronald Marks, a senior fellow at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at The George Washington University and a former Senate liaison officer at the CIA, said while nothing NSA has done has been illegal or without strict oversight, the controversy is pushing the debate about intelligence reform forward at an alarming rate.

“The NSA did everything right,” Marks said. “They bent over backwards. It’s perfectly legal by every standard. But Americans don’t trust government. You start to build up plaque in the system. And after 10 years, people are going to start to ask what are we doing here?”

Leiter agreed. What the Snowden affair has shown is that “we don’t actually have agreement on what should occur,” Leiter said.

“We are now at a really interesting historical moment,” Zelikow said. “The chapter in American and world history illuminated by 9/11 is a chapter that seems to be somehow drawing to a close,” he said, adding this is a good time to begin reflecting about if the country is still at war, if it has developed a surveillance state and what the role of intelligence organizations is and should be in the future.

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