White House Withheld Report From Top Intel Officers

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84223884.jpgThe White House has withheld a key report, which maps out a strategy for fixing the troubled Director of National Intelligence, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The classified report, "Study of the Mission, Size, and Function of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence," was completed by the Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) at least as early as March, several weeks before President Obama asked DNI Dennis Blair to resign. The report came at an inopportune time for the White House, which has pursued a policy course counter to the report's advice.

Multiple sources within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tell The Atlantic that the office, which employs about 1,500 people including the director himself, never received the report. The White House would not comment on how it was distributed, but Assistant Press Secretary Tommy Vietor said, "The study you reference was shared with DNI Blair, who provided us comments on the findings." However, the findings are only a brief summary of the report's unclassified sections; they are also freely available on Politico's website. The full report, which is classified, has not been shared.

Although it was established in April 2005 to head the U.S. intelligence community, the DNI has struggled because it has little power to assert its authority. The intelligence community, which includes such entrenched institutions as the CIA, has resisted the DNI's oversight. As a result, the DNI has been hampered by distracting turf wars and inter-agency disputes. The Obama administration entered office facing a dilemma: whether to reassert the DNI as the leader of the community or to scale the office down into a more modest role.

Blair, as well as key congressional leaders, have pushed for the DNI to take the leadership role. President Obama has publicly made a similar case, saying that the DNI should be "the leader of our intelligence community." The PIAB also takes this position, insisting the DNI be given "acknowledged" authority. Its findings state:

The IC [intelligence community] cannot continue to be an amalgam of independent and specialized agencies, each operating according to its own premises and policies. The very intent of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) [which established the DNI] was to provide for the effective integration of the IC. This has not yet happened. For the IC to function effectively and deliver credible and timely intelligence, it needs an acknowledged leader. This should be the DNI.

However, there is a second strain of thought about the DNI, one that suggests it would function better as a coordinator and facilitator working on behalf of the intelligence agencies. In an April 28 memo, Under Secretary of Defense James Clapper, whom the White House has since nominated to become the next DNI, argued for this role. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view is also often expressed by members of the intelligence community, who would rather have a DNI that works on their behalf as a coordinator agency than a DNI that works against them as an oversight agency.

Though Obama advocated for a strong DNI when announcing Clapper's nomination, in practice he has favored the second approach, forcing the DNI to relinquish key authorities over the CIA and de-emphasizing the DNI's oversight role. The White House has also declined to aid the DNI in its ongoing struggle with the Department of Defense. Both offices share oversight of multiple intelligence agencies, including the National Security Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency. Congress designed the DNI to supersede the Pentagon's authority of these agencies, but, lacking White House support, the DNI has been unable to complete tasks as simple as counting the number of foreign-language speakers in the agencies it supposedly oversees. Were Clapper to become the next DNI, he would probably be more willing to concede oversight authority to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who is Clapper's current boss, and to the Pentagon, of which he is currently a high-ranking official.

Congress commissioned the PIAB report late last year as part of the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act, requiring the board to evaluate the DNI and offer proposals for improving it. Though the White House is not required to share the report with DNI, it would be of obvious interest to the struggling office, and especially to Director Blair in the difficult weeks before he was asked to resign. The report was delivered on April 1, 2010, to the House and Senate intelligence committees, which oversee the DNI and must approve its new director. Since then, Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein has increasingly called for the DNI to be strengthened and given a firmer leadership role. The Senate committee's ranking Republican, Kit Bond, has expressed similar concerns, lamenting that "the DNI does not have the statutory authority and he obviously doesn't have the support of the White House." Their hesitancy about approving Clapper and opposition to Clapper's argument for a downsized DNI have threatened to delay his confirmation.

Had the White House shared the report with the DNI, hundreds of intelligence officials who would have read it may have joined Feinstein in pushing for a strengthened DNI. Sharing the report would also have complicated any future efforts to disempower the office, as Clapper appears likely to do. But the report addresses much more than the question of whether to strengthen or reduce the DNI's oversight authority. It also gives advice on how to streamline the office, how to better coordinate among agencies, and how to improve the DNI's core mission of facilitating intelligence-sharing -- failures at which may have contributed to allowing failed Christmas day attacker Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on his flight.

The DNI may in fact function better as a scaled-back coordinator agency rather than as the managerial oversight agency it was initially designed to be. However, at the moment, it lacks both a director and the PIAB report advising how to best do its job. Without those key tools, it is likely to struggle in whatever role it is assigned.

Image: President Obama announces his nomination of Admiral Dennis Blair to the Director of National Intelligence, January 9, 2009. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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