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The Post-Blair Intelligence World

Today Next Friday is Dennis Blair’s last day in the office as Director of National Intelligence. His farewell message to the intelligence community workforce is admirably chipper, calling them “true heroes, just like the members of the Armed Forces, firefighters, and police whose job it is to keep our nation safe.” For excellent backstories on some of the active policy issues implicated in Blair’s departure, Marc Ambinder has an impressively comprehensive post. Mark Hosenball too. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper, who’s dual-hatted as Blair’s deputy for the massive Defense Department-hosted intelligence apparatus, appears to be a leading candidate to replace Blair, but I’ve been warned against reading too much into any one candidate.

Many of the murmurings I’ve heard from intelligence veterans have concerned the untenability of the DNI position, an intended fix to the old CIA-centric intelligence leadership that’s created an odd hybrid of management over 16 agencies without correlative budgetary authority and a perhaps naive distance from active intelligence operations. If people on TV are upset that a series of failed-but-attempted domestic terrorist attacks have happened on “Blair’s watch,” as I’ve heard more than one cable pundit say over the past 18 hours, they’re misunderstanding the DNI. S/he’s not *supposed *to prevent those attempts from happening. S/he’s supposed to organize, structure and resource the intelligence community so relevant agencies can prevent those attempts from happening. That’s why the Senate intelligence committee report that found a disorganized National Counterterrorism Center — something the DNI is responsible for — was damaging. What the DNI should also be doing is focusing the intelligence community around answering why these domestic terror attempts are happening, particularly using American citizens as operatives.

If that operational distance sounds untenable, that might be because five years of unhappy experience since the 9/11 Commission sought greater intelligence consolidation is prompting a re-think in intelligence circles. When I asked a veteran career intelligence officer with experience in various intel agencies what he made of Blair’s departure, the response I got back started with “Good!” Like several intelligence officers who serve out in the dangerous parts of the world, the prospect of an increasingly top-heavy bureaucracy distanced from field concerns is an unpleasant one.

“Blair’s biggest move was to try to grab turf from CIA over station chiefs, instead of doing serious work like developing a plan to better integrate [intelligence community] bureaucracies, where joint-minded personnel and promotion policies could create positive change. But that’s hard work and not sexy,” the intelligence officer emailed. “The current system creates bureaucrats whose focus is building their empire — more bodies, more money — all in the name of national security. His position was created to fix the intelligence bureaucratic failures, but growing bureaucracies to fix bureaucracies is a losing bet.”

In fairness to Blair, you can find an effort at “joint-minded personnel and promotion policies” — or, at the least, a commitment to the idea of them — in his August 2009 National Intelligence Strategy (PDF).

But don’t expect either the Obama administration or Congress to have any appetite for root-and-branch restructuring of the DNI position. That would be a major structural reform five years after the last major structural reform, and the national agenda is already too clogged to tolerate such a thing. Instead, expect the confirmation hearings of whoever ultimately replaces Blair to be a colloquy on what statutory changes are necessary to make the Office of the Director of National Intelligence a more coherent structure.

Whether that’s ultimately a laudable goal is up for debate. In 2007, a former senior intelligence analyst, Robert Hutchings, testified to Congress that the creation of the DNI itself reflected what he called a “Coordination Myth” about intelligence. That myth, he said, was

that it is somehow possible to “coordinate” the work of hundreds of thousands of people across dozens of agencies operating in nearly every country of the world. Anyone who has worked in complex organizations knows, or should know, that it is possible to coordinate only a few select activities and that there are always tradeoffs, because every time you coordinate some activities you are simultaneously weakening coordination among others. To cite just one example, the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center may have enhanced interagency coordination among terrorist operators, which is a good thing, but it has surely weakened coordination between them and the country and regional experts. The net result is that the Intelligence Community is probably stronger in tactical counter- terrorist coordination but is surely weaker in strategic counterterrorism. While we are looking for the next car bomb, we may be missing the next generation of terrorist threats.

Anyone observing the current debates over drone strikes, increased radicalization and their relationship surely recognizes the current relevance of Hutchings’ fear. When I asked him what he thought about the next DNI, he quipped, “Please quash those burgeoning rumors that I will be tapped.”

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