Six weeks after President Bush signed the intelligence bill calling for a new director of national intelligence, the White House is still looking for what the president told reporters last week is "the right person to handle this very sensitive position."
Although names of several possible candidates have surfaced, officials say they do not believe the White House is close to making an appointment. Within the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill, officials say they believe the delay stems at least partly from continuing uncertainty over what real power and authority the new director will have.
"It is confounding and disturbing not to have someone on the job," Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said last week. She linked the delay to the "murkiness and ambiguities . . . directly related to compromises that had to be made in both houses" to get the intelligence reorganization bill passed.
The vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), acknowledged that the legislation left uncertainties about the role of the director of national intelligence (DNI) but said that "it was better to be a little vague" in writing such a law. "The person chosen to be DNI should be one of the five most powerful people in government and by his or her actions will eliminate the vagueness."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and a prime mover on the intelligence bill, said the White House "is really taking time in deciding" on a director. She recognized that one issue may be that the legislation "reflects compromises and may well need to be 'tweaked' " after a director is chosen.
The intelligence reorganization adopted by Congress in December created the director of national intelligence to oversee the 15 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community -- a recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission that investigated the failure of the government to foresee the 2001 attacks. Since the legislation passed, officials have been studying exactly what authority the director will possess and how he or she will fit in with current practices.
The law, for example, gave the director chief authority over the $40 billion the United States spends on intelligence collection each year. But it also requires the director to share control over Pentagon intelligence agencies with the defense secretary. How that will work in practical terms is not yet clear. Also unsettled is how the relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director, Porter J. Goss, will work in practice.
"DOD is a big problem," said a former senior intelligence official, noting the Pentagon's constant pressure to take on new intelligence roles. That pressure, said the former official -- who, like other sources cited in this report, would not allow his name to be used -- was reflected in revelations last week that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had established clandestine teams aimed at expanding the Pentagon's ability to collect human intelligence, which can include activities such as interrogating prisoners, scouting targets and recruiting foreign spies.
Collins said the Pentagon moves "raise a host of questions about where the DNI would fit into the picture." Tauscher characterized Rumsfeld's action as "mischief that happened in the absence of the DNI." Rockefeller, though not opposed to the new Pentagon units, said, "Rumsfeld appears to be taking advantage of a temporary vacuum."
Under the law, the director of national intelligence is responsible for ensuring that all elements of the intelligence community obey the law, particularly the CIA, FBI and Pentagon elements carrying out clandestine or covert activities.
"How do you do that when the Pentagon is off the ranch and the person in charge [the director of national intelligence] is not running those operations?" one former intelligence official asked. Under the law, the director sets priorities for covert intelligence activities and monitors "strategic planning," but the agencies implement those plans.
The former official said the director of national intelligence would have to get an agreement from the White House on his or her control over such activities, recalling an old saying in the intelligence community: "Analysts can get you in political trouble; the operations officers [who carry out covert actions] can get you in jail."
Some clarifying recommendations may come from Bush's own intelligence study panel, called the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Established almost a year ago and co-chaired by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), the panel is scheduled to report by March 31.
Originally tasked to examine the organization and capabilities of the intelligence community, the commission announced in December, after the president signed the intelligence bill, that it "will consider the recently enacted reforms as part of its broad examination of the intelligence community." Silberman and other panel members agreed not to comment until their report is released.
White House officials said last week that Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who is leading the search for a director of national intelligence, did not have time to grant an interview on the matter. Newsweek has reported that former CIA director Robert M. Gates had been approached but wanted to remain president of Texas A&M University.
Goss, who once was considered the leading candidate, has apparently decided to stay put at the CIA, according to congressional sources. Two former intelligence officials said that Silberman, a former ambassador to Yugoslavia and former deputy attorney general, and William Studeman, another member of the commission and former deputy CIA director, may be under consideration.
Two senior military officers, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who heads the National Security Agency, which handles electronic surveillance, and retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which handles analysis of satellite imagery, are both candidates, but sources considered them more likely to be candidates for deputy director of national intelligence or deputy CIA director.
Jeffrey Smith, a Washington lawyer and former CIA general counsel, said that he is not aware of anyone in particular the White House is looking at but that he expects "it will have to be a real name with political clout, prestige and experience, who has a guarantee from the president that 'when we meet on intelligence matters [in the White House], you will be at my right hand.' "
Richard J. Kerr, a former CIA deputy director, said he had talked last week to colleagues in Washington and found "they had no sense of anything perking away. . . . It is a very tough job, and whoever gets it will have tough battles to fight with those in charge of the agencies."
As Bush said last week: "We're dealing with a brand-new agency that is going to require a -- somebody with extraordinary experience. And we're looking. And no one should read anything other than, we want to make sure we make the right choice."