The Politics of National Intelligence

President Obama's intelligence cabinet may propose major changes to the nation's intelligence structure, prodded by Congress and a series of public embarassments that led to the firing last week of Director of National Dennis Blair.

Obama asked members of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB) to determine whether the national intelligence director's position has enough statuatory and budget authority to complete its core mission, and whether the directorate that houses the position, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has grown too quickly and lost its focus.

According to one intelligence official and several outside consultants, the PIAB has been asked to consider whether the next DNI needs to be incorporated into the executive office of the president and given a West Wing office. PIAB's members could recommend small changes, like a modest expansion of the DNI's authority to distribute money throughout the intelligence community, or more dramatic ones, like a structural overhaul that would fulfill the September 11 Commission's vision of intelligence reform, which envisioned a White House-based national intelligence director with direct authority overall all aspects of domestic, foreign and defense intelligence.

Speaking in Washington today, John Brennan, the president's assistant for counterterrorism, said that the review was meant to "optimize" the DNI position's ability to "orchestrate" the activities of the 16 agencies in the community.

There will be institutional and political resistence to any change, but several key senators, including the chair and ranking members of the intelligence committee, have signaled a willingness to support a larger overhaul, provided the right candidate to lead it is put forth.

The White House was unhappy when "senior administration officials" confirmed reports that Gen. James Clapper (ret.), the current undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was the leading candidate for the job. That Clapper is more likely to get the job is true, but it has not been communicated to other potential replacements, including some of his colleagues in the Defense Department.

And Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Senate intel committee chair, told reporters she was worried about the militarization of intelligence and would view a Clapper nomination with a skeptical eye. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, told Newsweek that Clapper was too aloof and disdained congressional oversight. (This is a complaint that is echoed by many in Congress, some of whom aren't terribly impressed with Clapper's lack of human intelligence experience and the work he did as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.)

Some senior military officials are quietly lobbying for the administration to ask Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, currently the chief of intelligence for Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan mission, to be the director or his principle deputy. But Flynn has generated friction with the Central Intelligence Agency over covert operations in Afghanistan, and has vocally opposed the agency's strong relationship with Wali Karzai, the brother of Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai. Though Wali Karzai is alleged to be a major drug trafficker interested in consolidating his power, he provides most of the intelligence for the U.S. in the Kandahar region.

The scuttlebutt at CIA headquarters in Langley suggests the promotion of CIA director Leon Panetta to a strengthened DNI position, but associates say that Panetta has no intention of leaving the CIA, whose morale and direction he believes he has helped to turn around.

Obama's closest advisers believe that the caterwauling about the DNI lacking authority is misplaced. They note that revisions to the executive order that charters the community, 12333, expanded the DNI's power, and that the DNI can move money around more easily than many people seem to think. He or she can fire the heads of the agencies, subject to the president's approval. Indeed, the DNI's staff might be too large, diluting the office-holder's ability to devote his or her attention to matters of intelligence coordination and what's known in the industry as "deconflicting."

The 9/11 Commission envisioned a DNI with a staff no larger than 500 people. As of today, it has more than 2,000 employees. The answer, these advisers believe, lies in finding a leader in whom the trusts. (That is one reason why both Panetta and Sen. Chuck Hagel, a PIAB co-chair, were approached about the job.) From the perspective of the DNI, Adm. Dennis Blair never had the president's full backing, which made making the difficult decisions even more difficult. Given the importance of counterterrorism to current intelligence priorities, Blair often felt as though Brennan had more direct decision-making authority than he did. Brennan could, for example, encourage the CIA to undertake, or modify, covert actions. When he did so, the CIA would know he had the direct backing of the president. Blair, by contrast, often found himself fighting against the scope of proposed CIA actions that had already been vetted by the National Security Staff.

A final variant of a reinvigorated DNI would turn the position into a -- wait for it -- czar, with a small staff, who would coordinate conflicts among executive agents and who would be more or less a problem-solver. This person would not testify before Congress. He or she would not make public appearances. He or she would remain in the shadows.