Why The Director of National Intelligence Is a Terrible Job

You don't want this gig

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The office of the Director of National Intelligence was established in 2005 to centralize the White House's oversight of intelligence and in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. DNI Dennis Blair was the third and, now resigning after only 16 months, the shortest tenured. Questions about the efficacy of the DNI job have persisted since its creation, but Blair's rocky tenure and sudden departure big a new urgency to the criticism. Here's the case against the DNI job.

  • Ill-Defined Since Its Creation  NBC's Chuck Todd connects Blair's departure to the ineffective DNI job. "One HUGE issue re: the DNI is that since its creation post-9/11, no detailed job description; IDEA of DNI & implementation never matched."
  • Just a Scapegoat Job  Liberal blogger Marcy Wheeler scoffs, "I’m thoroughly unsurprised by the news of Dennis Blair’s ouster. After all, it’s an impossible job that appears to serve one purpose: to provide a deck chair you can rearrange every two years as a scapegoat for our continuing inability to detect terrorists even with all the surveillance toys we’ve got."

Responsibilities: Oversee a complex network of intelligence agencies in the U.S. government that do not report to you or want to be overseen by you. Deal with seemingly endless bureaucratic infighting, underscored by a rising frequency of threats on the homeland. Testify often before a petulant Congress that is often more intent on scoring political points than engaging in serious dialog.

Perks: Public blame when things go wrong. No public credit for things that go right.

Pay: Not as much as you could make elsewhere.

  • 'An Impossible Job'  The Washington Post's David Ignatius shakes his head. "Blair thought, reasonably enough, that his job was to run the intelligence community. But nearly all of the intelligence chiefs have other bosses. The FBI director reports to the attorney general. The heads of the surveillance agencies, the NSA and NRO, report to the Secretary of Defense. That left the CIA director as Blair's only important direct underling, which led to the battle with Panetta."

Changing the person who occupies the DNI position will reduce friction temporarily, but the real problem is the definition of the job. If the DNI is supposed to be the intelligence czar, then he can’t have such a high-profile political underling as the CIA director. A better idea, in my view, is for the DNI to be a low-visibility facilitator -- an intelligence community version of the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB has power, through its review of budgets and personnel, but it doesn’t pretend to have line operating authority. That’s the right model.

Blair was asked to do an impossible job. His successor should be given clearer direction about what this position is, and isn’t.

  • The Hidden Opportunity To Fix DNI  Foreign Policy's David Rothkopf advises this "creates a wonderful opportunity for the Obama administration to reconsider the misbegotten idea of the Directorate of National Intelligence. This entire costly bureaucratic layer could be rendered obsolete if only the president chose to empower the director of central intelligence to do the job he was intended to do in the first place -- which is to coordinate intelligence flows among the multiple agencies of the intelligence community and to channel the intelligence effectively to policymakers."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.