Steven A. Cash,
President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that he intends to dramatically downsize the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He would be right to do so.
Even before the attacks of Sept, 11, 2001, there was concern that the structure of the U.S. intelligence community was fundamentally flawed. A single person, by statute, held two roles: head of the intelligence community (meaning the then-13 agencies and sub-departments, including the National Security Agency, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and, yes, CIA, that comprised the community) and head of the CIA. Many saw this as inherently dysfunctional. How could one person credibly lead — and sometimes adjudicate disputes among — this multitude of agencies and also be the head of one of them? How could we expect to find one person with the temperament, interest and ability to do two such different jobs? And weren’t these each full-time jobs, requiring the energy and attention of two people?
One simple possible solution drew on the analogy of an admiral of a fleet. Such an officer is responsible for guiding the overall activity of a group of warships, assigning roles and responsibilities and leading the captains of those ships. But this admiral does not have his own ship. He is not first among equals, a kind of player-coach. He stands apart and at the head of his fleet.
In 2002, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced the Intelligence Community Leadership Act. A few months later, it was co-sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The bill established a Director of National Intelligence (DNI), but unlike the legislation that eventually created the position, this version was concise. It basically took the existing “dual-hatted” functions and divided them into two categories: managing the community and managing the CIA. The new DNI got the first category, and the CIA director got the second. The DNI got his own general counsel (to ensure community-wide consistency in legal matters) and inspector general (to focus on community-wide issues). Nothing else significant changed. The bill was 33 pages long, had only two titles and largely consisted of legislative language moving existing provisions into the two titles.
Some joked that all the new DNI would need to carry out his duties was a conference table, 14 nice chairs (one for each intelligence community member, plus one for him) and a nice coffee maker (caffeine being the lifeblood of all government meetings). Like an admiral, he would preside over disputes among his captains, lead and direct them, and then let them each command their own ships. He would hold them accountable for their performance, reward their successes and punish their failures. He would manage the fleet budget. He would not, however, drive his own ship.
The bill went nowhere. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence never held hearings, issued a report or marked up legislation. Instead, the DNI concept became a post-Sept. 11 talking point. It eventually ended up as part of a bill before a non-intelligence committee and passed as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. This bill was 236 pages long and, while it did create a DNI, this DNI would need much more than a table and some coffee cups. The bill created three new “centers,” imposed myriad requirements and established a huge enterprise.
In the years that followed, the DNI establishment continued to grow. It eventually occupied a large Virginia office building and took on a host of responsibilities, including functions best characterized as operational or analytic. This result was no fleet admiral, but a new, ponderous ship and another captain (one with a fancier uniform).
Was the DNI a disaster? No. As so often happens, structural mistakes are mitigated by personal action. A series of DNIs, starting with John Negroponte and ending with the current occupant, James R. Clapper Jr., struggled mightily against the burdens of the growing bureaucracy. Tellingly, the phrase “DNI” (referring to a person) has come to be largely replaced by “ODNI,” office of the DNI (referring to a huge institution). The DNIs have succeeded; it is the ODNI that has failed. But we cannot rely on the happenstance of having excellent DNIs leading a fundamentally flawed system. Former senator Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), just announced as the president-elect’s nominee for DNI, may be the right person to right-size the operation, but he faces a monumental task.
So what should be done? A simple place to start would be to go back and look at what was contemplated in that first bill. Clapper said as much in hearings last week — that he thought it would be helpful “that some attention be given to, in our case, the legislative underpinnings that established the DNI in the first place.”
If we follow Clapper’s advice and the president-elect’s stated approach, we may be able to get what we needed in the first place: a slim, trim DNI. An admiral to lead a fleet.
Steven A. Cash, a counsel in the D.C. office of the Day Pitney law firm, has served as a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence staff member and counsel, as chief counsel to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and as a CIA lawyer and operations officer.