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A Spy CEO for Obama

By David Ignatius
Thursday, December 11, 2008

What should President-elect Barack Obama do about the intelligence community? He has appointed the other top members of his national security team, but intrigue still surrounds his choices for director of national intelligence and director of the CIA. Prospective nominees are caught in a rumor mill that's worthy of Beirut.

As usual with anything involving intelligence, the left and the right are trading blows -- with the professional spooks caught in the middle. The only people who looked really happy at the CIA Christmas party last week were the journalists, who were feasting on the hors d'oeuvres and spicy gossip.

Rather than rush to answer "who" questions, Obama should spend some time thinking about what he wants from the intelligence agencies -- and whether the structure that's in place makes sense. More than any part of the government, the intelligence community needs good management, but that requires more clarity about the mission.

Administrations that don't know what they want from intelligence often pick the wrong people. Under Bill Clinton, for example, the clamor for a conservative Democrat led to the appointment of James Woolsey -- a smart lawyer, but someone with so little White House access he might as well have communicated by carrier pigeon. Clinton's next choice was John Deutch, who wasn't sure he wanted the job and, by most accounts, did it poorly. George W. Bush made a string of mistakes with intelligence, but among the worst was his appointment of Porter Goss, a former congressman who further demoralized a battered agency.

The "what" questions are crucial now because the intelligence community is still reeling from a messy reorganization in 2006. That ill-considered "reform" created a big new DNI bureaucracy while leaving everything else intact. The result was like a lumpy pudding. The CIA has gotten the brunt of the DNI's often duplicative supervision, partly because the other big intelligence agencies (the FBI, the NSA, etc.) are all protected by Cabinet officers.

The DNI's hand got heavier in July with a new executive order that specifies his authority -- especially to second-guess the CIA. The spy world is now in a dither about a new directive that would allow the DNI to designate a non-CIA person as his representative in foreign capitals, gutting the authority of the local chief of station. These bureaucratic machinations have left foreign intelligence chiefs wondering who's in charge.

Should the Obama administration continue the DNI structure? The answer is probably yes, because yet another reorganization would drive everyone bonkers. But what should this intelligence czar do? In a perfect world, he would be the Warren Buffett of intelligence. That is, the DNI would be the chief executive of a diverse portfolio of intelligence agencies. The director would maintain accountability and quality control but let the agency heads run their businesses.

What's needed is an experienced, first-rate manager "who is less interested in briefing the president in the morning than in ensuring that the community has the best tools and processes to make the PDB [President's Daily Brief] a world-class product," says one former top-level intelligence official.

I would add that the left-right slugfest -- in which liberals stress accountability and conservatives emphasize performance -- is wrong. The intelligence community needs more of both, urgently.

To avoid duplicating functions, it would make sense to move analysis into the DNI's shop -- and let a leaner, more aggressive CIA focus on spying. "We should be thinking about CIA the way the British think about MI6, with a career intelligence professional at the head who has a fixed term that transcends elections," the former top official argues.

The Great Mentioner (whom we pundits consult about who's being "mentioned" for top jobs) continues to spin out names for intelligence posts: Former CIA officer and Obama intelligence transition chief John Brennan was thought to be a likely CIA director until he was vaporized by left-wing opposition. Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is a leading candidate for DNI, but some wonder whether the community needs yet another ex-military official. Rep. Jane Harman gets high marks for strong oversight, but some worry about the Porter Goss problem of appointing a politician.

The right answer? Find the Buffett-like manager who can create a truly great U.S. intelligence system at DNI, then let that person pick a CIA director who will be nonpolitical. And then, as the late CIA Director Richard Helms liked to tell his trench-coated colleagues, "Let's get on with it."

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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