We are six years out from one of the most far-reaching reforms of U.S. intelligence in its history. In 2004, Congress passed legislation that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to oversee and coordinate the sprawling collection of agencies that act as our nation’s eyes and ears. In thinking about the consequences, we now have an extraordinary World Affairs article by Gen. Michael Hayden, who has served as director of the CIA, director of the National Security Agency, and deputy to the first director of national intelligence, John Negroponte. In short, he knows whereof he speaks.
Hayden sees the reform as mixed bag. Like many in the intelligence world, he had opposed it at its inception, noting here that in the midst of war “[o]ur operational tempo was extremely high and we all knew that any major restructuring would be a drain on time and energy.” But given the lapses that led to 9/11 and the erroneous estimate of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a restructuring was almost inevitable. Congress chose to strip the director of the CIA of his coordinating role and convey that power to the head of the new agency that it created.
Hayden sees some pluses for the CIA in such a step: On the one hand, CIA directors under the new structure were now free to concentrate on CIA matters alone. But on the other hand, the reform merely kicked the problem upstairs, imposing “monumental” burdens on the Director of National Intelligence, vesting him with responsibility as senior intelligence adviser to the president and also with coordinating the actions of all the subordinate intelligence agencies, twin functions that CIA directors formerly wrestled with.
Hayden offers a very frank, and rather critical, appraisal of the Obama administration’s handling of the intelligence world. For one thing, the system’s success hinges heavily on the closeness of the Director of National Intelligence to the president, and under Dennis Blair, in no small part thanks to his own missteps, such closeness was absent.
Obama and Blair did not know one another before assuming their respective offices and did not meet frequently during the transition. Beyond this, it was clear to most in the intelligence community that, as much as this or any administration values good intelligence, this team was not all that anxious to look “under the hood.” The general attitude seemed to be one of treating intelligence like a public utility. Most of us, when we enter a room and throw on a light switch, expect illumination — not a grand debate over the virtues of 110 versus 220, the physics of power generation, or even the relative merits of building codes. Just light, please. With a variety of crises imposing themselves on the administration, the inner workings of intelligence — whenever they became an issue — were clearly viewed as a distraction from important work.
Hayden’s offers an especially acute analysis of the danger of “fratricide” that is always looming over the relationship between the CIA and the ODNI. He shows that even as we have been bringing the fight to our enemies, the reform has provoked — as many predicted — a great deal of internal strife in the intelligence world. Whether the restructuring has made the country more secure is impossible to say. We know well that we live in the vulnerable world of Sept. 12, 2001. But no one can tell us — including our multibillion dollar intelligence community — if today is also a Sept. 10.
This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.