Heads of state — from the time of Chinese military genius Sun Tzu in the fifth Century B.C., to our first commander-in-chief, George Washington, and many modern presidents — have understood the role good intelligence plays in achieving military and diplomatic success. Now, in this fast-moving and dangerous 21st Century, as the need for good intelligence becomes even more critical, bureaucratic battles in our nation’s capital threaten to cripple our capabilities.
Things started out well in the aftermath of WW II, when President Truman recognized that good foreign intelligence would be essential if the U.S. was to meet the challenges of the Cold War. In 1947, Truman signed the National Security Act, establishing the Central Intelligence Agency and the post of “DCI” or Director of Central Intelligence. The CIA director was to serve as both head of the CIA and as the DCI; in theory ensuring coordination of all foreign intelligence activities.
Unfortunately, recurrent bureaucratic jealousies and turf battles have at least partially crippled every DCI since Truman first named Rear Adm. Roscoe Hillenkoetter to that post in 1947. This is not to say that the CIA has not achieved some laudable successes in fulfilling its core mission. However, those successes — such as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 — often have been overshadowed by intelligence failures precipitated by turf battles and funding fights between civilian and military intelligence offices. The flawed intelligence in Iraq prior to and during the 2003 invasion stands as a prime example of the cost for such failures.
Of course, virtually every president has denied responsibility for failures of intelligence; despite evidence often leading directly to the Oval Office, where occupants either refused to listen to sound intelligence advice, or failed to support the DCI’s efforts to rein in military or Department of Defense intelligence offices.
In typical Washington fashion, the Congress and President George W. Bush “solved” the problem of DCI “failures” by simply abolishing the post of DCI and replacing it in 2004 with another bureaucracy — the Directorate of National Intelligence headed by a new intelligence “czar,” the DNI. Bush predicted the new office would ensure that foreign intelligence became “more unified, coordinated, and effective” — exactly what the DCI was supposed to do.
Now that we’ve lived for five years under a DNI instead of a DCI, where are we? Sadly, we’re actually worse off. We have all the bureaucracy that was and remains the CIA still competing for funds and the ear of the president with the myriad military and Department of Defense-related intelligence components. This process now competes with the DNI and intelligence offices and functions within the new Department of Homeland Security.
In the prior Bush administration, these jealousies and competing interests were artificially restrained as a result of the troubling control exercised by Vice President Cheney, who operated as his own combined DNI-DCI. In the new Obama administration, without the hand of a strong vice president pulling those levers, these impediments are once again boiling to the surface.
The war between CIA chief Leon Panetta and DNI Dennis Blair has reached the point where the DNI is asserting the power to name the individuals heading CIA stations in particular countries. Allowing such an unprecedented move undercutting the responsibility of the CIA director to manage his own agency would reduce him to little more than a figurehead. While such a result might please the DNI and the Secretary of Defense, it would actually exacerbate the serious problems already plaguing our foreign intelligence community.
If Obama does not move quickly to make clear that the role of the DNI is to provide overall coordination and prioritization of intelligence gathering and analysis — and not to micromanage the CIA — things will go from bad to worse; with potentially catastrophic consequences in hot spots around the globe.