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Congress Senate Panel Sides With Blair In Overseas Intel-Station-Chief Imbroglio

There’s a dispute inside the Obama administration about who should have the authority to appoint and direct the chief intelligence officer at oversees outposts. Should it be CIA Director Leon Panetta, since the job is traditionally a CIA responsibility? Or should it be Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, who runs the intelligence community overall?

Blair certainly thinks it should be him. In May, Blair issued a directive saying that the CIA station chief is will be dual-hatted as his representative, and in “rare circumstances” the DNI reserves the right to appoint someone from a different intelligence agency as necessary. Panetta took issue with it. The issue is current under review by the National Security Council. (Marc Ambinder reported recently that Vice President Biden may be the deciding factor.)

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has sided with Blair. In the unclassified summary of its 2010 intelligence authorization bill is this language unambiguously backing Blair’s directive, known as ICD-402:

The directive recognizes the value of turning to the CIA Chief of Station to be the DNI’s representative in foreign countries, but also recognizes that some locations may give rise to circumstances where that responsibility is best met by an official with expertise derived from another Intelligence Community element, which in fact is already current practice and is not disputed by anyone.

In any event, the DNI, exercising his authority under the law, has made the decision that that the directive is the right choice for the Intelligence Community. The Committee supports the DNI in that choice and looks forward to the CIA’s prompt adherence to his decision.

This wouldn’t have the force of law if the bill passes, as it’s assumed it will. But it’s an unambiguous indication of congressional support for the DNI over the CIA. And it’s already not going over well in some corners of the community. A U.S. intelligence official who would only speak anonymously said that the Senate intelligence committee was actually fuzzy on the implications of what its language entails. For instance: what happens to the CIA chief of station if the DNI puts a different intelligence official over him or her?

“If there are stations chiefs and DNI reps in the same place overseas, who will the American ambassador turn to?” the official said. “Having two top dogs in overseas stations isn’t the way to do business. We need a clear chain of command, not an exported Beltway bureaucracy that causes confusion within our own government and with foreign partners. Liaison services need to know which number to dial.” (“Exported Beltway bureaucracy” won’t go over well at the DNI’s office…)

The official referenced the fact that question of station-chief-authority predates either Blair or Panetta’s appointments, even stretching back to the first DNI, John Negroponte, and noted that the Senate didn’t take a position on the necessity of switching the authority over to the DNI. “It’s almost as if [Senators] want to say they can do this rather than they need to do this,” the official. “What’s the outcome they’re trying to achieve? That’s not at all clear.” What’s crystal clear is that the Senate panel thinks that whatever the outcome, Dennis Blair should be in charge of it.

Update: That’ll teach me not to update my headline from my scratch copy. Apologies.

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