Lawmakers, experts weigh response to DNI's departure

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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.