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Spy vs. Spy: Blair vs. Panetta

Late in 2008, Mike McConnell, then the director of national intelligence, issued a directive instructing CIA officials at overseas outposts directly responsible to him. It was the first time in the brief history of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the director had waded a toe into the operational side of spycraft. And it was all the more disquieting within the intelligence community because the director’s job was created in order to finally strip the CIA of control over the 16-agency community, allowing the CIA director to focus on intelligence collection and analysis and a new top intelligence chief to focus on overall community management — a move that struck many at CIA as a demotion. This new interference into traditional CIA functions represented the latest indignity. “It’s madness, it’s just crazy,” a former intelligence official told me in November. “This is like two competing institutions. The DNI’s not [supposed to] have these resources. If every time he makes a demand on CIA there’s resentment and pushback, it’s a huge problem.”

That problem is coming to pass. Last month, reports Mark Mazzetti at The New York Times, McConnell’s successor, Dennis Blair, told the community that he, and not CIA Director Leon Panetta, would select the top intelligence official overseas, possibly from agencies other than the CIA. Panetta told the CIA to ignore Blair. The White House is now working to adjudicate the dispute, but to some degree, the turf battle is the result of vagaries in the 2004 law that created the director of national intelligence. According to Mazzetti, Blair has greater congressional support:

“We need to move intelligence away from the cold war mind-set, and the C.I.A. has a problem to some extent accepting that,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee.

Blair appears not to be fighting for control of Pentagon-based intelligence assets — like the spy satellites of the National Reconnaisance Office or the vast cryptological apparatus of the National Security Agency — with Defense Secretary Bob Gates, even though the Pentagon is estimated to control between 85 and 90 percent of the intelligence budget. Frequent battles for intelligence-community supremacy between CIA Director George Tenet and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld characterized President George W. Bush’s first term. Gates and McConnell attempted to resolve the inherent bureaucratic tension by making the Pentagon’s chief of intelligence and the director of national intelligence’s chief of defense intelligence the same person, a retired Air Force general named James Clapper, who continues to serve as undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Speculation: This may be a case where the dispute is resolved — temporarily at least — by John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, whom President Obama initially wanted to become CIA director before Glenn Greenwald and other progressives questioned his commitment to ending torture. If so, Brennan will demonstrate that while Blair and Panetta fight it out, he’s the actual center of gravity within the intelligence community.

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