ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Seismic Shudder
The overlooked legacy of Donald Rumsfeld.
In November 2005, when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was just seven months old, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delegated authority over the so-called national agencies-large organizations, such as the National Security Agency, that collect intelligence for the entire government-to the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence. It was an arcane bureaucratic maneuver and its enormous significance on the command and control of the nation's spying apparatus went practically unnoticed.
In the past, management of these agencies, which account for about 80 percent of the intelligence budget, effectively was decentralized. Directors ran their organizations, and a lower-level Pentagon official with an already-full portfolio had nominal oversight. The undersecretary for intelligence, however, was a new position, created in 2003, and had a plate to fill. This official could actually spend his time directing the agencies, and since he reported to the secretary, Rumsfeld gained more control over those agencies than he and his predecessors had ever had. A month after Rumsfeld acted, President Bush signed an executive order making the undersecretary for intelligence the third-highest ranking official in the Defense Department. This combination of events created what Joan Dempsey, a longtime senior intelligence official at the Pentagon and the first deputy director of Central Intelligence for community management, has called a "seismic shudder."
For at least 20 years, senior Pentagon officials had tried unsuccessfully to assert control over the national agencies. Rumsfeld made a go at it earlier in his term, but George Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence, dissuaded him. But with the creation of the DNI's office, the DCI went away. In the tumult of turnover, it seems, Rumsfeld sensed an opportunity.
"Had the DNI or [his deputy] gone to [Rumsfeld] and said, 'Don't do this,' I don't think he would have done it," Dempsey said during a seminar at Harvard University in September 2006, "but it all occurred during the stand-up of the DNI's office, and nature abhors a vacuum. Any time people take their eye off the ball, or they're not in place, or whatever, is a good time to get controversial things done."
Rumsfeld secured for the Pentagon a valuable counter- weight against the new DNI, who, by law, was supposed to determine the entire intelligence budget. The logic behind creating a DNI was to decrease the Defense secretary's potency, to wrest control over the intelligence budget and to put it in the hands of an official who has the entire community's interest in mind. But that didn't happen, primarily because the law creating the DNI didn't give him enough authority to redirect budgets. Rumsfeld knew this, and his move ensured that the intelligence director would have to fight the Office of the Secretary of Defense even harder for every dollar.
"Having the day-to-day management responsibility for the national agencies has now given the undersecretary tremendous power and leverage over those agencies that the DNI does not have," Dempsey said. She added, "It's a very different environment, and from where I stand it's not a better environment than the one we came from."
The current undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, James R. Clapper, is close friends with the DNI, Mike McConnell, but insiders note that Clapper has been a fierce advocate for Pentagon budget priorities. Even collegiality, it seems, cannot overcome bureaucratic instincts.
The undersecretary is the new power player in the intelligence community, more important than even the director of the CIA, who is a mere agency chief by comparison. This seemingly mundane reorganization could prove to be as important as the creation of the DNI-and perhaps more so. Call it the Rumsfeld Legacy. The intelligence community will be living with it for years to come.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.