By David Ignatius
Thursday, June 11, 2009
There are spy wars, and there are turf wars. But watch out when the two are combined, as in the battle over who will appoint America's intelligence chiefs abroad -- Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, or Leon Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Blair, a retired admiral who likes an orderly chain of command, fired off a memo on May 19 claiming the right to install non-CIA officers as his representatives overseas. Panetta, thinking this contentious issue was still under review at the White House, sent a cable the next day saying, in effect, that station chiefs should ignore Blair's edict until the matter is resolved by the National Security Council. Blair went ballistic, viewing Panetta's actions as, in the words of one official, "an act of insubordination."
If you're President Obama, watching your two spy chiefs brawling by memo, your reaction surely is: "Give me a break." I'm told the White House is peeved at both Blair and Panetta -- neither of whom, apparently, cleared their memos with national security adviser Jim Jones before sending them -- and is looking for ways to, as one official described it, "put the genie back in the bottle" before tempers get any hotter.
The bureaucratic battle was unfortunate, but it will serve a useful purpose if it forces the White House, finally, to clarify the intelligence reorganization process that created the DNI structure in 2005.
The right division of labor is to let the CIA run operations, which begins with picking the people who will be America's point of contact with foreign intelligence services. Blair has the authority on paper to challenge that prerogative, but he was wrong to do so in practice. This is CIA turf, not just by tradition but also by common sense. Blair should back off.
At the same time, the CIA should accept that Blair's DNI is really, truly the president's adviser on intelligence matters. The DNI controls the daily flow of analysis to the executive branch. Over time, that means the role traditionally played by CIA analysts should flow to the DNI -- so that we have an elite cadre of all-source analysts similar to Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee. Panetta should accept that diminution of CIA turf.
The problem here, really, is with the intelligence reorganization that created the DNI shop in the first place -- in theory, to avoid the kind of intelligence failures that led to Sept. 11, 2001. That reorganization was a bad idea from the start; it created unnecessary new layers of bureaucracy -- the DNI now has about 1,500 people, partly duplicating jobs that used to be done by the CIA. But worse, the reorganization has added to the very bureaucratic tensions it was supposed to avoid.
To understand this flap, you need to rewind the tape. The feud over who should appoint station chiefs began in the Bush administration, and it was at the top of Blair's inbox. Pushed by his staff and by other intelligence agencies, Blair pressed for more authority. He convened a panel of "graybeards" to study the matter -- never a good sign.
Blair wanted the power to run the intelligence community -- including the CIA. On paper, that's his job. But right now, he and his staff spend too much time mirroring CIA activities. Blair is said to have sought, for example, greater oversight of the CIA's covert action mission. That was an overreach.
Panetta, appointed to restore the morale and political standing of a battered agency, pushed back against Blair. He argued (correctly, in my view) that the CIA must take responsibility for operations and that this necessarily includes control of intelligence liaison. Foreign intelligence services were already scratching their heads about whether to collaborate with the CIA or DNI. Blair's push for control of station chiefs would make that confusion worse, the CIA argued (again, correctly).
Now it's all in the lap of the NSC. I'm told the DNI has been promised that its authority won't be undermined, but there's also sympathy at the White House for Panetta's efforts to revive CIA morale.
The White House should do more here than just "put the genie back in the bottle." This bottle, in truth, was broken the day it was created. To get effective performance by our intelligence agencies, we need clearer missions. The CIA should run operations; the DNI should run analysis and intelligence community coordination. There's a world of scary people out there, and the country can't afford this turf war any longer.