Opinion: Do away with director of national intelligence

BOSTON — The United States is being targeted by more and more by terrorists these days, but does it really matter that there is no Director of National Intelligence in his post? President Barack Obama fired his director late last month, and no successor has yet been found.

But will the giant National Security Agency, with its vast listening devices — some of them dubbed elephant cages for their size — be any less efficient in its eavesdropping all over the world? Will analysts be missing that key mobile phone conversation that could trigger the next assault on Times Square? Will the CIA be less informed on the northwest frontier of Pakistan? Or will the Pentagon become any less aggressive in trying to move onto the CIA’s turf?

I don’t think so. Why? Because the position of director of national intelligence has never had any real clout, was never given the power it needed to be effective. It should be recognized now as just another of the mistakes we made after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

When Obama fired the latest director he probably hoped that the retired admiral, Dennis Blair, might stay on until a new director could be found. But Blair chose to clean out his desk, and the post is known as the job that nobody in his right mind would want. Blair was the third director in six years.

It may be that, in theory, the director of national intelligence is the senior intelligence official and boss of all the other agencies. In reality it has been an empty shell, powerless and losing all its bureaucratic battles to the CIA, with too little support from the White House.

The position was created by Congress in 2004, having been recommended by the 9/11 Commission. The idea was to coordinate the myriad of intelligence organizations to avoid the kind of miscommunication, such as the CIA not telling the FBI what it knew leading up to 9/11. But like so many actions the United States committed after 9/11, this extra layer of bureaucracy has resembled the old adage: marry in haste and regret at leisure.

That we needed better coordination of intelligence was not a bad idea. The 9/11 Commission noted that, “during the Cold War, intelligence agencies did not depend on seamless integration to track and count the thousands of military targets … fielded by the Soviet Union and other adversary states. Each agency concentrated on its specialized mission, acquiring its own information and then sharing it via formal, finished reports.” In today’s world that leads to intelligence being organized around the “collection of disciplines of the home agencies, not the joint mission.”

In a struggle against non–state terrorist groups, “the importance of integrated, all source analysis cannot be overstated,” the commission held.

The commission found that the U.S. military was better organized than the intelligence services. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation of 1986 reorganized the armed services so that each service “assigns personnel and units to the joint combatant commander, like the commanding general of the Central Command,” the commission said, and officers were required to “serve tours outside their service” in order to win promotion. “The culture of the Defense Department was transformed, its collective mind-set moved from service-specific to joint, and its operations became more integrated.”

With that model in mind, the commission found our present intelligence set-up hopelessly mired, unable to adequately “pool information gathered overseas with information gathered in the United States,” or to hold what ever is done to a “common standard of how it is reported, shared and analyzed.”

The commission acknowledged that the CIA was once central to that role, the director of central intelligence (DCI) was supposed to serve as czar of all intelligence gathering when the agency was set up after WWII, but in today’s world the sources of intelligence were too diverse for the DCI to handle. Satellite imagery, for example, now so important to intelligence was not known when the CIA was formed.

Before 9/11, the DCI had three jobs, running the CIA, managing the “loose confederation of agencies that is the intelligence community,” and acting as chief analyst for the government as well as the president’s chief intelligence adviser. The commission held that the DCI’s “current authorities are weak,” and that “with so much to do the DCI often has not used even the authority he has.”

So the answer was to create a whole new layer of bureaucracy, call it the director of national intelligence, and put that person over the director of central intelligence and CIA, as well as all the other intelligence gathering agencies, right?

Wrong. As we now see that added level has failed in the task it was set up to do, was never given enough authority to win the battles with the entrenched agencies it was supposed to lead.

What to do? Abolish the post. Return the director of central intelligence to the responsibilities it was tasked with originally, and give the position all the requisite powers it needs, as quite rightly defined by the 9/11 Commission, to ride herd on all the rest.

In other words, reorganize intelligence as the military reorganized itself, with all the services pulling together — maybe even with officers in all the different agencies having to serve in each other’s shoes as a basis for promotion. The secretary of defense does not need a director of national defense above him to coordinate the departments of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Nor should the director of central intelligence.

Adding extra, hollow layers of bureaucracy were never the answer to the problems the 9/11 Commission correctly identified. Better to improve and empower what is already in place.