Key lawmakers and former U.S. counterterrorism officials are grappling with how best to ensure that the nation's top intelligence official has proper authority, but they agreed there appears to be no appetite on Capitol Hill to pass legislative fixes.
Last week's abrupt announcement that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair was stepping down after less than two years on the job sent shock waves through intelligence agencies and Congress. Blair's resignation goes into effect Friday.
"This is very bad for the [intelligence] community," retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who has served as both CIA director and chief of the National Security Agency, said in an interview. "Up until now I was strongly against any congressional help, but now I'm not so sure."
Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Blair's resignation brings forward her concerns that the DNI has had more responsibility than authority.
"After five years and three DNIs, it is clear that the law calls for a leader, but the authority provided in law is essentially that of a coordinator," Feinstein said. "The president needs to decide what he wants the DNI to be, and then work with the Intelligence Committees to see that the necessary authority is, in fact, in law."
Congress created the DNI and overhauled U.S. intelligence operations in 2004, but the legislation contained ambiguous authorities for the DNI, according to current and former intelligence officials.
One area in particular that creates confusion is Section 1018, one official said. It requires the president to issue guidelines ensuring the effective implementation of the DNI's authorities. But the section adds that the guidelines must "not abrogate" the statutory responsibilities of the heads of other federal departments.
The official said that section undercuts the power of the DNI and should be changed to give the DNI more flexibility.
But no former officials or congressional aides believe Congress will make changes to the law anytime soon.
"I don't think there's the stomach to do another reorganization. I mean, Jesus Christ," one aide said. "It would be a cruel and unusual punishment for both Congress and the administration."
"Let's be honest. They're not going to do away with [the DNI], and they're not going to put legislation up there to fix it," said Frances Fragos Townsend, former top counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush.
"The first, doing away with it, is political untenable," she said. "You don't want to be responsible for doing away with it and have a failure. The second, the legislation to fix it, would require political will. They've got financial industry reform and healthcare reform."
"So that leads me to whoever the next DNI is better have a very clear conversation with the president," she added. "What is it you want me to do and what is it you will give me the authority, the power, to do inside the system?"
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, issued a statement Friday saying they looked forward to speaking with Blair "to better understand why he is leaving his position."
"We want to know whether he thinks the DNI needs more statutory authority than it currently has," they said. Referring to committee hearings earlier this year on the "status of intelligence reform," they said, "The hearings reinforced our belief that while the DNI has strong authorities, those authorities may need to be strengthened -- particularly in the areas of intelligence agency budgets and the selection of the intelligence leaders. Also, any perceived ambiguities regarding the DNI's authorities must be resolved."
"We also think we should make crystal clear that the DNI has authority over the CIA, and over elements of the intelligence community within the Department of Defense and other Cabinet agencies," they wrote.