Last week, we learned that Admiral Dennis Blair, President Obama’s director of national intelligence, is stepping down. It is widely assumed that Blair’s resignation came at the administration’s urging, if not the President’s request.
Sadly, Blair’s departure comes at a time when confidence in American intelligence activities and analysis has become strained in response to sustained scrutiny following the Ft. Hood shooting, the failed plot to blow-up an airliner on Christmas Day with an explosive device concealed in a passenger’s underwear, and the recent attempt to detonate a Rube Goldberg-style car bomb in Times Square. After each instance, pundits inside and outside the Beltway wondered why analysts “failed to connect the dots.”
The post of director of national intelligence was created by Congress and established by the last administration at the urging of the 9/11 Commission. The Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) ostensibly oversees the budgets and operations of sixteen agencies that collectively contribute to a comprehensive picture of the threats facing the nation. The ODNI plays a critical role in processing and packaging the intelligence analysis that informs and shapes White House policy.
Consideration of who should replace Blair in the top job have surfaced conflicts between Congressional leaders and the administration that reflect competing conceptions of the problems confronting the agency and its leader. Media reports suggest that Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Lt. Gen. (Ret.) James R. Clapper, Jr. is the administration’s preferred candidate. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, seems to prefer Leon Panetta, the current Director of Central Intelligence, arguing that civilian oversight is crucial to establishing ODNI’s independence and stimulating the change and accountability Congress intended. The administration’s critics contend that Clapper would be too inclined to defer to Defense when conflicts arise.
You don’t have to have much experience in government, much less the intelligence community, to see that ODNI and its director have a thankless if not impossible job. Indeed the problems facing Blair and his successor could be seen as a metaphor for the problems facing the country in the post-9/11 era.
During the Cold War, a clear and common enemy made the lack of coordination among intelligence agencies far less problematic. The threat itself was complicated, but not unduly complex. The actions of our adversary and its allies was more like a puzzle than a mystery. As such, intelligence efforts focused on gathering information and analyzing each scrap for signs of the adversary’s capabilities and intentions. More often than not, the former informed our appreciation of the latter.
Capabilities and intentions are no less important today, but the threat posed by our current adversaries is far different. And the relationship between intentions and capabilities is reversed. Although our adversaries may share a common ideology, they come at us from different places and perspectives. And their grandiose designs shape the risks they are willing to take to attack us. As such, understanding how their intentions shape such efforts should inform the steps we take to interfere with their plans, interrupt their communications, and interdict their operatives.
Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and their sympathizers may like to think they pose a threat to our continued existence, but it is far more accurate to think the seeds of such a demise are ours alone to sow. If this is the case, what then should we make of the choice now before the administration and the Senate? What will it take to get America’s intelligence services to work together rather than simply staying out of one another’s way? Is it reasonable to assume one person or one agency can accomplish such a Herculean — or is it Sisyphean — task? What would success look like? And how do we make sure that DNI does not come to mean little more than Do Not Interfere — as in do not disrupt the status quo?