The Real Intelligence Wars: Oversight And Access

For months, the CIA director, Leon Panetta, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.), fought an intense and acrimonious turf battle over covert action oversight and access to White House officials. Last week, the two men agreed to a truce when they signed a classified memorandum brokered by the National Security Adviser, James Jones.

Through intermediaries, Panetta and Blair crossed swords over who should appoint senior intelligence representatives in foreign countries. Now, through interviews, new details are emerging about other, more sensitive conflicts between the two men and their agencies, including which agency is responsible for oversight of the CIA's controversial and classified Predator drone program.

According to the agreement, the details of which were confirmed by several officials, the CIA will retain responsibility for appointing senior intelligence representatives in foreign countries.  But other parts of the agreement seem to favor Blair. The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) will now be at the table whenever the CIA covert action programs are discussed at the White House. Also, Blair now has the authority to assess whether covert action programs fit with the nation's intelligence strategy.

Competition between the CIA, the nation's intelligence service, and the DNI, its new intelligence manager, has become fierce in the Obama administration. A victory for one side is seen by the other as a loss of power and authority. As part of the agreement, Blair and Panetta plan to meet weekly with National Security Adviser Jones. Face time with the president is preserved for both men. Blair, or his representative, briefs the president daily. Panetta has a standing meeting with the commander in chief at least one a week. In bureaucratic terms, both the CIA and the DNI need buy in. They need the White House to recognize their formal and informal authorities.

The conflict became public earlier this year, after the CIA protested when the Director of National Intelligence appointed a senior National Security Agency representative to be the DNI's representative in Kurdistan. Traditionally, the CIA's chief of station had served as the foreign nation's principal intelligence representative. But the NSA has a bigger footprint in Kurdistan, and the DNI decided that he would be better served by appointing an NSA officer to be his representative.  Then, the DNI and the CIA got into a dispute over the identity of the top intelligence officer for Pacific Command. Blair, former PACCOM commander in chief, wanted his own guy; Panetta had a different choice.

Blair assumed that the National Security Council would immediately settle the issue in his favor. After all, as he believed, the DNI structure couldn't work unless the White House acknowledged the supremacy of the office. Vice President Joe Biden was asked to mediate between Blair and Panetta. Biden held three meetings between the two with no appreciable progress. Last week, he decided in favor of Panetta.  This was a big victory for Panetta, who had lost several public rounds with the White House over the release of Bush-era torture memorandums  and the decision by the Justice Department to review interrogation files for potential prosecution.  Panetta opposed the document release on the grounds that they could hinder current intelligence collection and worried that interrogation prosecutions would dampen morale and were unnecessary. The National Clandestine Service -- still known to initiates as the "DO" -- or directorate of operations -- is a culture within a culture. So sacrosanct are its operational imperatives that Panetta might have faced an internal revolt had he not retain the appointment authority.

The conflict over covert action was even more sensitive. Since the CIA's establishment in 1947, its officers have had a direct line to the National Security Council. No cut-outs, no go-betweens.  Blair and his deputies believed that the CIA's National Clandestine Service was failing to provide a full picture of several of the agency's largest covert collection and special activity programs. In particular, the DNI would often find out about CIA-initiated drone strikes in Pakistan well after the fact. The CIA was conscientious about briefing the National Security Council, but did not bother to loop in the DNI.

Presented by

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.

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In