New round of intel reform posturing begins

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Just a quick break from vacation to observe the friction between the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of Central Intelligence:

The White House this month issued a classified order to resolve mounting frictions between the nation’s intelligence director and the CIA over issues including how the agency conducts covert operations, U.S. officials said.

The intervention reflects simmering tension between the two most powerful players in the U.S. intelligence community: Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.

The memo maintains the CIA’s status as the nation’s lead spy service on covert missions, rejecting an attempt by Blair to assert more control. But the document also includes language detailing the agency’s obligation to work closely with Blair on sensitive operations.

The White House memo, signed by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, was an attempt to settle a collection of disputes that have plagued the relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director for years.

I’ve been interested in this for a long time (dates of the links are August 2004, June 2009, December 2008, and April 2009).  Here’s what I wrote this time last year about the conflict:

Why “putative”?  The DNI was created in much the same way as the Director of Central Intelligence was originally intended; that is, to be the point of the intel spear.  “16 other intelligence agencies”, most of them within the Department of Defense, indicates how diffuse the community has become.  Budget authority for most of the intel community lies outside of the DNI’s scope, resulting in a role that is heavy on its need for influence, short on control, and highly susceptible to the caprices of a complex political environment.  Creating new organizational entities to compensate for dysfunction among other organizational entities often brings unintended consequences.  A “joined-up” intel community continues to be no more than a diluted aspiration hovering over a cluster of moribund silos.

The DNI is a position created without the benefit of systemic analysis and diagnosis of the problems it was designed to create.  It is political organizational hackery at its worst.  This is what happens when you move the boxes on the org chart around without understanding what they mean.  This is what happens when you do not strive for a view of organizational and trans-organizational interdependencies.  This is what happens when you fail to acknowledge that budget represents strategy more than does title.  This is what happens when you replace an opportunity for inquiry with an abundance of certainty.

I don’t intend to continue banging the “I told you so” drum on this.  There’s almost six years of analysis on intel reform in the archives of this blog, which in turn build upon a century each of organizational scholarship and solid reporting on the origins and evolution of the intel community.  There are a handful of articles in the last month alone that describe the turf wars between DNI and CIA in Washington and abroad, as well as a pile of archives stretching back to the summer of 2004.  For those who remain unconvinced about the hot mess the new arrangement has created, there’s little more I can offer.

Intelligence reform was taken up in the early part of this benighted decade to address a failure to connect dots and staggering deficiencies in coordination and cooperation, the two fundamental concerns of organization theory.  The urgency of a nation newly returned to war combined with the momentum of aligned political will should have brought forth an intel community with (internally) clear accountability, budget authority, processes, lines of authority, resource availability, methods of cooperation, etc.  The fact that we read about this in major newspapers indicates that that has not happened, and is almost certainly not in the process of happening.

We are at the inception of a fresh new round of political posturing about “connecting dots” and “chatter in the system”.  Another young punk with some shadowy connections tried to bring down a plane, much like the hapless Richard Reid a handful of years before him.  Absent a total ban on luggage of any sort and duct-taping passengers naked to their chairs, this will almost certainly happen again.  This would be a good opportunity to put the nature and extent of the threat in context, perhaps moving from the blunt-force approach of war to the precision approaches of solid international law enforcement.  Alas, the conversation will almost certainly be driven by loud voices spending yet another fortune on yet another doomed run at intel reform–we love our sound and fury, but we seem unable to remember what they signify.

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