By Shane Harris
January 1, 2009
Cutting the intelligence director's workload could make him better at his job.
President-elect Barack Obama has a decision to make about his new intelligence chief: Should he take away some of the job responsibilities? Doing so could make both their lives easier, and may well encourage better management of the intelligence community.
The first two directors of National Intelligence, John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, unfortunately were dual-hatted. They served as President Bush's chief intelligence briefer, meeting with him at and the chief executive of the intelligence bureaucracy at the White House nearly every morning. Neither man liked doing both jobs; in fact, it exhausted them.
Negroponte was a natural adviser, but he was so ill-suited for the nitty-gritty of management that he often stole away midday to his private club in Washington for a swim or a massage. And McConnell, who did more to advance communitywide management than any senior official in recent memory, complained publicly several times that the early morning visits to the White House were wearing him down. Listening to Negroponte and McConnell, one imagined them saying, "This is not what I signed up for."
It wasn't supposed to be that way. The DNI post was created in 2004 to take the management burden off the shoulders of the director of Central Intelligence, who nominally ran the community while also, in his capacity as CIA chief, directly serving the president. The job was overwhelming, and so intelligence reformers passed a law breaking up the duties. While the DNI serves at the pleasure of the president and is still his top intelligence contact, that doesn't mean he has to serve him every morning in the Oval Office. Indeed, President Clinton delegated the task of daily briefer to a still senior but lower level CIA official. That freed up the agency director to focus on other business.
Many intelligence experts think Obama should return to that model. McConnell will hand his successor a trove of initiatives. And the DNI is the intelligence community's primary representative to Congress. He'll have his plate full. Furthermore, the president already has a daily relationship with the intelligence community through his national security adviser, who is supposed to act as a White House conduit to the agencies.
Letting the DNI be a manager would distribute the workload, but it also would send an arguably comforting message to the intelligence workforce: Obama is inclined to have a less political relationship with the community than his predecessor.
Bush took the unusual step of asking George Tenet to stay on as his director of Central Intelligence in 2001. The two got on well, and Bush's father-himself a former director-advised his son to keep Tenet close. By all accounts, including his own, Tenet was a loyal supporter of the career workforce who also felt a personal fondness for the president. Tenet's critics, supporters and friends have questioned whose side he was on, particularly in the wake of failed intelligence assessments of Iraqi weapons programs. They wondered if his closeness to the commander in chief diminished his capacity to "speak truth to power."
It seems that anyone who knows Tenet says he put the concerns of his employees above all else. And he has made that abundantly clear in his vociferous defense of the community. But the closer he got to the president, the more he acted like a pol. The same was true for Negroponte and McConnell. That's alarming, because while these men have political instincts, neither was, by nature, a politician. The job turned them into one, at least for a time.
Obama has said, and signaled, that he truly wants to depoliticize the intelligence community. A good first step would be to keep his new DNI out of the White House every day.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.
By Shane Harris
January 1, 2009