Obama Gets First In-Depth Intelligence Briefing
Friday, November 7, 2008
For nearly an hour yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama met with two of the country's top intelligence officers for an important rite of passage: his first full-blown classified briefing on national security.
But at least one topic that loomed heavily over the discussions was reportedly never broached: Who would Obama pick to advise him on the nation's most sensitive intelligence secrets during the next four years?
The Obama camp has offered no hints of how it plans to fill top intelligence posts, including the positions of director of national intelligence, now held by Mike McConnell, and CIA director, held by Michael V. Hayden. The decision is particularly complicated, because the rules and traditions for selecting intelligence officials are somewhat different from those for other administration appointees.
Unlike the directorship of the FBI, the top posts at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence do not come with a set term that transcends presidential administrations. And, while both officials are appointed by the president and serve at his pleasure, the White House has broader discretion in filling intelligence posts and can elect to keep the current leadership in place. President Bush, after assuming office in 2001, decided to retain George Tenet as CIA director, even though Tenet had been appointed by Bush's Democratic predecessor.
"Intelligence is supposed to be nonpartisan, although that hasn't always been the case," said one longtime intelligence veteran who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities surrounding the transition.
Many former and current intelligence officials interviewed said they believed that Obama would prefer a fresh start, but some speculated that he may keep a few top officials in place for continuity at a time when the nation is fighting two foreign wars as well as a broader counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda.
Neither the Obama camp nor its senior security advisers would comment on internal discussions about top intelligence posts. Likewise, the officials would not comment on possible outside candidates for the jobs. Within intelligence circles the speculation is centering on former intelligence officials who are close to the Obama team, including John O. Brennan, the former interim director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), former ranking minority member of the House intelligence committee.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created under Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has five presidentially appointed slots: the director and four other senior officials, including the principal deputy director and head of the National Counterterrorism Center. At the CIA, the director is the only presidential appointee.
Neither McConnell nor Hayden has said publicly whether he prefers to stay or leave. Both men assumed their current jobs in Bush's second term and were not directly tainted by the controversies over faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or the decision to use waterboarding and other harsh techniques on suspected terrorists in secret CIA prisons.
McConnell has hinted that he expects to be replaced. In a published account in July, McConnell was quoted as saying he was willing to remain on the job for the first six months of a new administration. Last week, while giving a speech at his high school near Greenville, S.C., he talked about returning to his native South Carolina "in a few years."
Hayden appeared to be open to the possibility of staying on, if asked, according to a senior intelligence official who works closely with him.
"Mike Hayden is not concerned about it. He is focused on doing the job," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
While the Obama team contemplates its moves, both men have an unusual opportunity to present the future president with their ideas for how the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies should be managed in the future.
McConnell, who briefed Obama on intelligence matters after he became the Democratic presidential nominee, presided over yesterday's more substantive briefing -- essentially the equivalent of the highly secret "President's Daily Brief." McConnell was joined by the CIA's Michael J. Morell, who heads the agency's analysis division. Morell was expected to remain in Chicago during the transition to give Obama daily updates.
Until Jan. 20, Hayden said in a Wednesday letter to CIA employees, the intelligence community will serve "two sets of customers," one of them already in the White House and the other making preparations to move in.