McConnell Wants a National Intelligence Department

Adm. Michael McConnell (ret.), the former NSA director and most recent Director of National Intelligence (DNI), said that future occupants of his old job might never be successful unless the entire intelligence community undergoes wrenching structural changes.

He said he had come to endorse the concept of a ten-year term for the DNI, whose appointment would then span at least two administrations, sealing him or her off from institutional and political pressures, much like the FBI Director, who also has a ten year term.

McConnell also said he supports an entire "Department of Intelligence" that would consolidate national U.S. intelligence agencies, including some of those that exist within the Department of Defense, into one entity.

Virtually every speaker noted that the DNI has massive responsibilities but lacks the authority and legitimacy to execute them. It is popular for supporters of the DNI concept to borrow from the history of the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department reorganization bill, which took decades to gell. But McConnell noted that the Defense Department was already a coherent entity; the DNI and the intelligence community lack the structure that the Pentagon had even before the reform.

McConnell was participating in a high-level panel about the future of the DNI sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Council this morning in Washington. Among other speakers was Stephen Cambone, who opposed the DNI as a concept when Congress was debating putting it into law, and who fought with the DNI over authority and budget and tasking when the office was set up. Cambone was the civilian chief of the Pentagon's intelligence agencies at the time and was the Defense Secretary's principal intelligence adviser.

Cambone said he preferred approaches that take into account the specific needs of high-level policy makers first and that figure out the structure later. He implied that the DNI was ill-equipped to provide information to policy makers that would allow them to "minimize or maximize" whatever endeavor was being undertaken.

So Cambone surprised some in his audience, including members of the DNI's personnel office, when he said that "There is no question whatsoever that at the operational level that the community is far better than it ever was."

As to the role itself, though, he was critical. With the current DNI, Dennis Blair, sitting directly in front of him, he said that the "management responsibilities in and of themselves have little leverage unless that management is done for the purposes of making the DNI the best adviser to the president and of course by extension the other members of the NSC and by extension all the operators [in the government]."

Cambone implied that he doubted one person could be responsible for such an enormously complex system. McConnell responded that the DoD was a complex and effective organization run by one person, too -- but that the Defense Department had statutory authority to do the job effectively. "Without that decision authority, we're just debating our point of view."