Blair, Panetta Clash Over Who Controls Pakistan Drones

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 9:37 am

Marc Ambinder has a seriously detailed curtain-raiser on a turf war that’s roiled the intelligence community for months. Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, and Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, have clashed over who controls the top U.S. intelligence officer in various foreign countries. But Ambinder goes way deeper to provide a greater sense of the specific stakes involved.

The big reveal is that Blair, the nominal overall intelligence chief, wants a much bigger role over the CIA’s drone strikes in Pakistan.

Since the CIA’s establishment in 1947, its officers have had a direct line to the National Security Council. No cut-outs, no go-betweens.  Blair and his deputies believed that the CIA’s National Clandestine Service was failing to provide a full picture of several of the agency’s largest covert collection and special activity programs. In particular, the DNI would often find out about CIA-initiated drone strikes in Pakistan well after the fact. The CIA was conscientious about briefing the National Security Council, but did not bother to loop in the DNI.

That won’t happen any longer. The CIA will keep its unfettered access to national security principals, and the DNI still doesn’t have the authority to order covert action programs, but the White House is now requiring the CIA to fully brief the DNI on all covert action programs and will seek from the DNI regular assessments of whether any program fits in with the nation’s intelligence strategy, which is set by Blair. Since Blair briefs Congress more often than Panetta does, it makes sense for Blair to know as much about covert action programs as CIA briefers would.

That might sound like bureaucratic box-checking. But for years, the DNI’s office — long before Blair took over — has quietly absorbed many intelligence analysts who look at long-term geopolitical questions, rather than analyzing the crises of the moment. Since the big question with the drone strikes is whether they ultimately enrage Pashtun Pakistanis by the civilian casualties they create — and therefore raise the question of whether the strikes are counterproductive — it’s not inconceivable that Blair’s office would take a more skeptical view of the program’s value than the CIA does.

But that’s not the only big piece of news Ambinder uncovers. Check this out:

The conflict became public earlier this year, after the CIA protested when the Director of National Intelligence appointed a senior National Security Agency representative to be the DNI’s representative in Kurdistan. Traditionally, the CIA’s chief of station had served as the foreign nation’s principal intelligence representative. But the NSA has a bigger footprint in Kurdistan, and the DNI decided that he would be better served by appointing an NSA officer to be his representative.

The conflict is not new. But the fact that it took place over Iraqi Kurdistan most definitely is. And the additional fact that Kurdistan is home to a National Security Agency presence is big big news. I would bet a lot of money that such a presence is geared toward some serious spying on nearby Iran.

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