Experience Will Be Prime Asset for Obama's Intelligence Chiefs

By Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama faces a dilemma in selecting his top intelligence advisers: finding experienced leaders who understand the challenges facing the various U.S. intelligence agencies -- but who are untainted by the controversies and problems that have plagued the intelligence apparatus during the Bush era.

Obama, who announced much of his national security team Monday, has signaled his intention to end controversial policies on detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects. Yet the nation's next intelligence leaders will face far more vexing demands. At the top of the list are improving intelligence collection and analysis, and streamlining an unwieldy structure -- all without further damaging morale.

Prominent voices in the intelligence community and the Obama camp have argued that a seasoned professional is needed when the country is waging two wars and a campaign against terrorism, and that a newcomer would face an excessively steep learning curve.

"An outsider will get eaten alive," said Amy Zegart, an associate professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and a former security adviser to both the Clinton administration and President Bush's 2000 transition team. "The next CIA director has to walk a fine line between taming the building and transforming it. He's got to be part cheerleader and part skull-cracker. There is just no room for on-the-job learning."

A major near-term challenge is fashioning the country's 16 disparate intelligence agencies into an effective whole. While the agencies collectively refer to themselves as the intelligence "community," they have traditionally been plagued by overlapping responsibilities, bureaucratic rivalries and poor information-sharing. The problems became more pronounced after the Cold War, when the agencies shifted their focus from the Soviet Union to new non-state threats, blurring the lines between intelligence and law enforcement, foreign and domestic.

The creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004 was in part an attempt to forge a clear chain of command; yet the restructuring has led to new squabbling over turf and control over the intelligence community's budget, which currently totals $47.5 billion. Some independent experts have argued that the office is an unneeded layer of bureaucracy, and many in Congress have called for reducing its size.

During the campaign, Obama proposed giving the director of national intelligence a fixed term, akin to that of the chairman of the Federal Reserve, as a way to "foster consistency and integrity in the office of the DNI," as he told The Washington Post in March.

But Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, whom Bush appointed last year to succeed John D. Negroponte, has warned against yet another structural overhaul for a community that has been the subject of 41 high-level studies since 1946.

"Rather than reinvent the wheel . . . just take advantage of all those 41 studies and see if we can't put some teeth into doing those things," McConnell said at a conference last month.

While acknowledging that reforms are still needed, intelligence officials expressed concern that reformers could inadvertently reverse hard-won progress achieved over the past three years. Since the creation of the intelligence director's office, walls that traditionally separated agencies and impeded information-sharing have begun to come down, the officials said. "For the first time, there's someone who wakes up each morning and has the interest of the entire intelligence community as his No. 1 job," office spokesman Richard Willing said.

Obama comes to the White House lacking extensive experience in intelligence matters. He could opt to retain some or all of the current leadership, including McConnell and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden. McConnell has publicly stated that he expects to be replaced, though he is willing to stay on during an interim period.

McConnell and Hayden, who were both second-term appointments for Bush, sought to restore stability to the intelligence agencies. The CIA was at the center of several major controversies of the Bush presidency, starting with the intelligence failures that preceded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as well as the faulty prewar intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs. The agency also drew criticism over the secret transfer of captured terrorism suspects to countries known to use torture, the use of secret prisons for high-level captives and the employment of harsh interrogation methods.

During the same period, the National Security Agency, which runs electronic surveillance operations, oversaw the controversial program of warrantless wiretapping of communication lines transiting the United States.

Until he dropped out last week, 25-year CIA veteran John O. Brennan was considered a top candidate for a senior intelligence job under Obama. Brennan, who quit the spy agency in early 2005, had powerful backers and had run sensitive counterterrorism operations for the agency while publicly opposing practices such as waterboarding. But he withdrew from consideration after coming under fire from various groups, including a coalition of 200 psychiatrists who wrote to Obama arguing that the appointment would "alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration."

Other frequently mentioned candidates for top intelligence posts in the Obama administration include retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, seen as a favorite for director of national intelligence; Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), formerly the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee; and John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary who is also considered a candidate to eventually succeed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, whom Obama has nominated to remain at the Pentagon.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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