Unintelligent Design

Unintelligent Design

Mini Teaser: In the wake of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, Americans cried out for catharsis. The 9/11 Commission delivered. What we are left with is an ill-conceived bureacracy in the guise of reform.

by Author(s): Paul R. Pillar

A common view was that for the same official to lead both the CIA and the intelligence community was somehow anomalous, unbalanced or unfair. This view overlooked why the Central Intelligence Agency exists. The explanation is in the word “central.” The CIA was—until the establishment of the ODNI—the only intelligence organization not part of some other department, beholden only to national, not departmental, requirements and interests. If there was any one place where everything having to do with intelligence was supposed to come together, the CIA was it. The community-leadership functions of the DCI reflected this. Dissolving that position represents a deconsolidation, not consolidation, of the intelligence community’s work.

Proponents, too, incorrectly applied a span-of-control argument: that leading both the CIA and the intelligence community was too big a job for one person to handle. But the DCI, like any other senior leader in either the government or the private sector, did not personally do everything; he delegated. To help run the CIA he had an executive director of the agency, as well as a deputy director of central intelligence who focused much of his time on agency business. A second deputy director of central intelligence was solely concerned with community-wide matters, assisted by an intelligence-community staff. If such delegation does not negate the “too big” argument, then what does it imply about the DNI? If he really is in charge of the whole intelligence community, then his job is every bit as big as the DCI’s ever was. If he is not in charge of it, then what did the reorganization accomplish?

THE REORGANIZATION reflected a bigger misunderstanding still: why an intelligence community exists at all. Much pro-centralization sentiment seems to view the community, like Italy before the Risorgimento or Germany before Bismarck, as an entity that an unfortunate historical legacy has left in pieces but would be better and stronger if cemented together. Many of the community’s components exist, however, because their primary mission is to serve the intelligence needs of particular government departments, including functioning as the intelligence staff for a given secretary, responding to requests from individual bureaus and highlighting intelligence of particular relevance to a department’s responsibilities. These components include the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the Department of State, and intelligence components in the Departments of Energy, Treasury and Homeland Security. Certainly, it makes sense to tap their expertise and to treat them as a community for some purposes (such as participating in the preparation and review of certain assessments and estimates), but their raison d’être and thus chief responsibility always will be to serve their own departments. No matter how ruthless a reform the rest of the intelligence community may undergo, the heads of those departments will understandably insist on retaining primary control over their intelligence arms.

Other intelligence agencies are properly under the control of a cabinet department for different, but still valid, reasons. Some intelligence-community components within the Department of Defense have broader missions, yet it is not a historical accident that they reside within that department because, for example, the imagery-processing capabilities of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) do substantial double duty in fulfilling the military’s mapping requirements. In the same vein, the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) wears (since May 2010) a second hat as head of the military’s new Cyber Command. Given the extensive technological overlap between cyberwarfare and the NSA’s signals-intercept business, the dual-hatting makes sense.

The nature of the intelligence community and the missions of its components mean that an executive head who genuinely directs the whole shebang will always be a chimera. If we expect the DNI to play such a role, he inevitably will fail. The previous arrangement, in which the DCI provided leadership to the community, may have represented about as much direction as this inherently motley collection of components can bear. The DCI, and those elsewhere in the government who did business with him, had little doubt about his role. The DNI—lacking any institutional base other than the extra layer of bureaucracy known as the ODNI—will always have trouble figuring out what his own role is, or ought to be.

A LACK of clarity in the DNI’s legal authorities only adds to his difficulty in trying to scratch out a meaningful mission for himself. The DCI’s authorities accumulated through more than fifty years of legislation and executive orders. The drafters of those many documents, not anticipating what would happen in 2004 (when Congress created the position of DNI), did not use language that specified which of those powers belonged with the DCI because he ran the CIA and which belonged with him because he led the intelligence community. The hastily prepared legislation that split the DCI’s job into two did not come close to articulating which of the job’s functions devolved to the DNI and which to the current position of director of the CIA. Government lawyers have been negotiating over this ever since.

In trying to assert themselves amid this confusion, the DNI and his staff have naturally exploited the only solid line on the organization chart that extends downward from the ODNI to a preexisting agency: the one to the CIA. The lines to the other components of the intelligence community are only dotted, meaning some sort of leadership is supposed to be taking place but direct control resides elsewhere. (The DNI does not even fully control the National Counterterrorism Center. In one of the 9/11 Commission’s more convoluted bits of bureaucratic engineering, the head of the center has two bosses, reporting to the DNI on intelligence matters but directly to the White House on strategic planning for counterterrorism.) The inevitable tussles between the ODNI and the CIA have not only generated heat and distrust but also led to some results that cannot possibly improve governmental effectiveness. This has included, for example, the ODNI kicking CIA representatives off some interagency committees in order to claim the intelligence seat, even though the CIA was still directly and heavily involved in the subject at hand.

A few of the tussles have become public. The most notable one—which went to the White House for arbitration—concerned who should appoint overseas intelligence representatives. Some have pointed to this as an example of the kind of petty squabbling among intelligence bureaucrats over turf that makes vigorous reform all the more necessary. Yet the proponents of change fail to point out that the turf battle resulted directly from confusion created by the 9/11 Commission’s proposals. This was a good example of how intelligence reform, or supposed reform, feeds on itself. One round of it generates new problems that in turn feed a cottage industry of ideas for the next round. The whole question of the DNI’s overall future and role is a larger example of the same phenomenon.

CONSISTENT WITH the usual pattern of endlessly self-sustaining intelligence “reform,” the dominant response to the glaring problems with the DNI is to seek fixes to the fix. There has been no shortage of suggestions. Some probably would help, but all would have offsetting disadvantages.

Most criticism of the DNI has ignored the unachievable aspects of the expectations placed on him and the inherently contradictory aspects of the situation in which he has been placed. One line of criticism, for example—voiced by, among others, members of the 9/11 Commission—is that the ODNI has become too big, bloated and bureaucratic. Something leaner and meaner was intended, say the critics. But scrapping any staff functions of the ODNI means either that those functions do not get performed or that to carry them out the DNI must rely on the resources and goodwill of other agencies in the intelligence community. It is appealing to think that the DNI could draw on any capabilities throughout the community that he wants to, much as a military commander can draw on those of any units subordinate to his command. But because of the nature of the intelligence community, the DNI always will be more of a supplicant and dependent than a commander. The ODNI staff is the only hired help that he can always count on.

Another suggestion has been for the DNI to shed some of his roles. One area concerns the third major responsibility of the old DCI job, besides directing the CIA and leading the intelligence community: being the principal intelligence adviser to the president. This aspect of the DCI’s duties devolved to the DNI. Generally seen as part of this responsibility—and the part that in practice has consumed by far the largest portion of the DNI’s time and attention—is direct participation in the daily morning intelligence briefing of the president. Getting rid of this function, with all of the preparation time that goes with it, would free the DNI to devote his energy to leadership of the community.

But this change is exceedingly unlikely. During much of the history of the morning brief, subordinates handled the briefing chores, with directors (i.e., DCIs) seldom participating. It is only in more recent years that personal involvement in this morning ritual has come to be seen as a directorial function. But now that it is seen that way—and given that face time with the president is a highly prized commodity symbolizing access and influence—giving up the function probably would reduce the status of the DNI. Whatever he gained in freed-up time to lead the intelligence community he would lose with entrance of the perception that he no longer had the ear of the president. Residents of Washington probably would say he had been “Zorned”—after the name of a recent head coach of the Redskins football team who was widely viewed as having been emasculated when team management relieved him of his play-calling duties.

Image: Pullquote: In short, the 9/11 Commission presented its findings amid the worst possible environment for carefully examining them. It was an environment of passion and politics, not careful judgment.Essay Types: Essay