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Opinion: Do away with director of national intelligence

Hollow layers of bureaucracy were never the answer to the problems the 9/11 Commission identified.

obama and dennis blair
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair following Obama's remarks at the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va., Oct. 6, 2009. Obama fired Blair in late May. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

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.”