An Intelligence Turf War Or Just Unfinished Business

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The Associated Press's Pamela Hess reports that the nation's top intelligence officials, Director of National Intelligence Denny Blair and CIA director Leon Panetta are "locked in a turf battle" over whether non-CIA personnel should be the DNI's formal representative in a country, or whether the CIA's station chiefs -- traditionally the senior intelligence officer at any embassy -- should retain their supervisory role.  "Turf battle" is one way to describe it, but don't draw from that the notion that Blair and Panetta are at daggers drawn. They've simply asked the White House to resolve a question that Congress dropped in their laps when it created the DNI structure and took away the CIA chief's power to direct the activities of the nation's other 15 intelligence agencies.  

In 2004, as part of its major post-9/11 reform bill, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act, Congress created a new intelligence bureaucracy to oversee the activities of the entire community. The CIA director -- who had also been the director of central intelligence -- would now be, in essence, the chief human intelligence collector and analyzer, and the CIA would no longer be, at least in a symbolic sense, the hub of the community.  When the CIA director was also the DCI, CIA station chiefs had dual authority, too. They managed the activities of CIA personnel and assets in a station and they signed off on any intelligence activity by any other agency in that country.

Congress changed the system, but it didn't offer any guidance. The DNI was given less budget authority than he needed and few tools to fight through the bureaucratic tangles. The two DNIs before Admiral Blair tried to consolidate their power. Blair simply inherited his grandmother's furniture. 

The reality is that this dispute needs to be resolved. If a National Security Agency signals intelligence officer travels to [REDACTED] to visit a special collection facility, does he or she need the approval of the station chief to visit or liaise with other agencies?  If the US intelligence presence in, say, the former Soviet Republic of [REDACTED] is primarily a technical one and not a repository of spies and their human sources, does it make more sense for the NSA chief, who might have a better relationship with the country in question -- and we're primarily talking about countries with whom the US has intelligence relationships -- to serve as the de facto chief of station? Also: who does the chief of station report to? The CIA Director? The DNI? Questions about the line of authority run from the mundane to the serious -- if the DNI orders a station chief to go do something, does the station chief first ask his or her supervisor at the CIA's National Clandestine Service?

The CIA and NSA, through a still-classified entity called the Special Collection Service, jointly run large codebreaking and signals intelligence collection facilities at dozens of embassies across the world. The NSA's presence at smaller embassies is limited to code rooms; NSA officers don't run spies. But as the NSA's external footprint has grown, its liaison arrangements with other countries have blossomed. In certain very friendly countries, NSA operates joint collection facilities with the host government. The result is that there are far more NSA employees in a number of countries than there are CIA employees. 

Ironically, one of the first officials to wrestle with this problem was Michael Hayden, fresh from his service as NSA director. While serving as John Negroponte's principle deputy DNI, he wanted flexibility for the DNI. When Hayden became the CIA director, he became an advocate of the CIA station chiefs. 

The solution is fairly obvious, as one former CIA officer put it to me: "I think the station chiefs should be selected based on their experience and based on the situation of the specific country, and if that somebody is from an agency that is not CIA, and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing."

The CIA wants to preserve its traditional role, but it worries about an intelligence structure that artificially evens the playing field between agencies.  The DNI wants the power Congress theoretically granted to his office. He doesn't want to appoint the chiefs -- that's a CIA prerogative. He just wants to be able to choose someone else to represent him, if he feels that the facts on the ground warrant the decision.

For some perspective, I asked former senior CIA operations officer "Ishmael Jones" -- he's still not allowed to reveal his real name -- for his take.

Today's targets - nuclear proliferators and terrorists - don't recognize the borders of nations and don't have to check in with their own local bureaucrats in each country. The enemy is thus faster and more flexible. For example, if a CIA case officer stationed in Rome seeks to meet an Egyptian terrorist source in Germany, he needs approvals from the CIA chiefs in Italy, Egypt and Germany, plus countless other chiefs back at Headquarters. If the terrorist travels unexpectedly to France, new approvals are immediately required from the CIA chief in France, plus each of the other aforementioned gatekeepers. The time taken to obtain these approvals usually means the meeting will not take place.  
Taking a look at a map of the world, we can see that the station chiefs' contribution to intelligence is weak. We don't have them at all in key target countries like North Korea and Iran, because station chiefs exist within embassies and we don't have embassies in those places. In countries like Russia and China which have aggressive spy services, the CIA station chief is almost confined within the embassy, a figurehead. In western Europe, a key crossroads for terrorists and proliferators, station chief assignments are given to senior CIA officers as pre-retirement tours. These people don't want to jeopardize their positions and tend to be very risk-averse.  
Anything that can be done to break up the CIA's station chief system will lead to greater safety for Americans and our allies.

Kudos -- from an institutional standpoint -- to whoever leaked this story. It puts pressure on the White House to resolve the situation fairly quickly.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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