Lifting the Lid

National Intelligence Director James Clapper must blend 16 agencies into a coherent community.

In the record hot summer of 2012, the intelligence community was feeling a different kind of heat. Rocked by outrage over leaks to the press, top officials were scrambling to tighten controls on classified information. 

Media outlets had published eye-opening stories dissecting the government’s successes in taking out al Qaeda terrorists and allegedly launching a computer virus against Iran to slow its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. The disclosure of behind-the-scenes details left lawmakers howling mad. 

Republicans accused the Obama administration of endangering intelligence and military operations to garner positive publicity, which White House officials vehemently denied. Lawmakers proposed legislation to require intelligence agencies to notify Congress when they give sensitive news interviews.

From his office at the Liberty Crossing complex in McLean, Va., James Clapper, in his second year as director of the Office of National Intelligence, responded to the extent of his powers. He mandated that the polygraph for intelligence employees include a question about unauthorized disclosure of classified information. And he asked the intelligence community inspector general to probe unauthorized disclosures in cases where the Justice Department declines prosecution.

“These efforts will reinforce our professional values by sending a strong message that intelligence personnel always have and always will hold ourselves to the highest standard of professionalism,” Clapper said in a June 25 statement. “It is my sincere hope that others across the government will follow our lead.”

Clapper, a former Air Force lieutenant general who has worked with most of the key players in the intelligence community, could only hope to set an example for users of classified materials beyond his purview. 

“Part of the leak problem is that Gen. Clapper only has the intelligence community under his authority,” says Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Select Intelligence Committee, referring to the 16 agencies that became part of ODNI when it was stood up in 2005. “But there are lots of other people with access to this information, such as those at the National Security Council and advisory groups. The DNI has some moral influence, but if we are to cover all the people who may be the culprits, it has to escalate to the presidential level.”

Paul R. Pillar, a 28-year CIA veteran who is now a security studies fellow at Georgetown University, agrees the breakdown goes beyond Clapper’s team and could possibly extend to the White House or Capitol Hill. “It is not valid to assume that the agency that produced a leaked document is the source,” he says.

Stanching leaks is but one of the tasks the national intelligence director has confronted since the community was restructured under the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. As many pointed out during debate on that hotly contested bill, the DNI presides over a notoriously stovepiped set of agencies and has limited authority to mold budgets or hire and fire. 

Add to those headaches Washington’s current fiscal crunch. “Since 9/11, intelligence has gotten more money and more people every year, but we’re not in that mode anymore,” Clapper says. “With the fiscal 2013 request, we’re making significant cuts across the community. So this is a litmus test. It’s a good thing to have a personage to make the cuts on a balanced and fair basis.”

The fourth and longest in a position President Obama himself called “the most thankless job in Washington,” Clapper directs a staff that has coped with heavy leadership turnover. That has worried members of the 9/11 commission, who wrote in a 10-year follow-up report in September 2011: “Short tenures detract from the goals of building strong authority in the office and the confidence essential for the president to rely on the DNI as his chief intelligence adviser.”

Despite five decades in the business, Clapper says his current role is “the hardest job I’ve ever tried to do.”

Snake Pit

Though the 9/11 commission recommended that Congress establish a director of national intelligence, the panel’s members were among the most vocal in criticizing the way it played out. Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, for example, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Beast in 2010 blasting President George W. Bush for picking John Negroponte as the first DNI, calling him “a superb diplomat with no interest or experience in the intelligence snake pit.” Not only did Bush limit his powers over personnel and budgets, he “lumbered him with a vast new bureaucracy,” Lehman wrote.

Negroponte’s successor in February 2007, Navy admiral and Booz Allen Hamilton executive Mike McConnell, lasted until Obama’s term began in 2009, counting as his accomplishments newly defined responsibilities for the 16 intelligence agencies.

It was Obama appointee Dennis C. Blair, another Navy veteran, who ran into trouble. According to news accounts, Blair’s abrupt resignation in May 2010 was the culmination of clashes with the White House over priorities. These included run-ins with chief counter-
terrorism adviser John Brennan, friction with the CIA and criticism that ODNI should absorb some blame for government’s failure on Christmas Day 2009 to head off a Nigerian passenger’s unsuccessful attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner. The Senate Select Intelligence Committee later identified 14 separate failures by intelligence agencies.

But nothing dramatized the shaky status of ODNI more than the attempt by Blair in the summer of 2009 to invoke authority to pick station chiefs for overseas posts. Then-CIA Director Leon Panetta challenged him, issuing a memo to CIA staff instructing them to ignore Blair’s directive. 

“That fight is the example of the friction that under the old system was not an issue because the director of Central Intelligence was in charge of it all,” Pillar says. The legislation creating ODNI “left unanswered many detailed questions on tasks that had accumulated at CIA over the years in a job that has existed since 1947. Government lawyers have been renegotiating them now for years.” 

Pillar cautions that the job’s difficulties stem from its nature and anomalies more than individuals who have rotated through it. “The rapid successions reflect the logical and organizational peculiarities of the reorganization, which were not thought through because they were done in a rush by a nation implementing fixes after 9/11,” he says.

Clapper is “well-qualified, with almost a model résumé,” he adds.

Rogers says Clapper is steering ODNI to add value. “Clapper has done exceptionally well with relationships with all intelligence community players throughout his career,” he says. “His personality is a good fit, and he has taken it to the next level.” 

Dale Meyerrose, a former Air Force major general who spent three years as chief information officer at ODNI, agrees. “I don’t think the administration could have found a more qualified person, even if not all has gone swimmingly given the hand he was dealt,” says Meyerrose, who runs a consulting firm in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

As a sign of ODNI’s evolving reputation, Meyerrose recalls that when he was first offered his position there, his colleagues said, “Why would you take that? It looks like a losing proposition.”

Shifting Turf

“One important thing Clapper has accomplished,” Rogers says, is curbing the agency’s exponential growth. “He’s committed to making ODNI smaller and equally effective. We don’t need a whole new layer of bureaucracy settled over the old one.”

Starting out as a staff of 11 in the New Executive Office Building near the White House, the ODNI moved to Northern
Virginia in 2008 and grew to a staff of 1,750. That includes divisions as varied as the National Counterproliferation Center and the National Counterterrorism Center, which accounts for 40 percent of ODNI staff, mostly in operations. But, a spokesman says, “the core ODNI staff numbers approximate the size of the old intelligence community staff.” 

Clapper rejects the notion that his staff is big. “I’d ask Congress, ‘What is it you want me to quit doing, given the legislation’s direction of what we’re supposed to do?’ ” he says. “For a corporate headquarters of the global enterprise that is the federal intelligence community, we’re pretty small.” 

Critics seeing bloated bureaucracy should recall from military experience, Pillar says, “if you give someone command or senior responsibility, you can’t expect them to operate without considerable staff. You can’t have him standing up there naked and completely dependent on what CIA analysts give him.”

The staff also helps the director integrate and reduce redundancies among the 16 agencies, a task Clapper is executing via 17 national intelligence managers designated by regions of the world and by theme, such as cybersecurity, finance and science. 

But that approach doesn’t guarantee success, according to Meyerrose. “Superimposing the ODNI to oversee the community does not amount to changing how it works,” he says. “The supporting bureaucracy, the Capitol Hill committees and the agency lines of communication still make it difficult for the DNI to succeed because significant amounts of funding remain split among the departmental agencies and there is a natural tension between funding the best interest of an agency and the best interest of the collective intelligence community.”

Every agency has its own mission and priorities justified by a legislative paper trail, Meyerrose adds. Whether it’s intelligence collection or analysis or personnel, he says, “those who perceive that they stand to lose will oppose an idea, and those that stand to gain will favor it. No one places their priorities with the collective.” 

According to Rogers, turf fights have diminished, though he says the reason might be that ODNI is steering coordination in the direction of big programs rather than trying to dictate operations.

Clapper says relations with the CIA were strained in the past because of the “divorce” required by the 2004 law. “I’ve tried to enhance visitation rights,” he says, citing a move by himself and Panetta, now the secretary of Defense, to bond. That tightness has continued at CIA under the leadership of retired Gen. David Petraeus, he adds, and is eased further by the presence of many former CIA officials at ODNI.

What most agree is running smoothly is the President’s Daily Brief, a routine intelligence update started in the Kennedy administration that has been passed to ODNI to produce. It is a document summarizing major security threats around the globe that Obama reads every morning, followed by an in-person briefing by Clapper or Robert Cardillo, ODNI’s deputy
director of national intelligence for intelligence integration, when the president is in town. 

In the past there has been ample opportunity for subjectivity and bias in the report, Pillar says, noting clashes between CIA analysts and the Bush administration over the severity of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein before the invasion of Iraq. That unpleasant experience, Pillar says, “understandably still weighs on the backs of intelligence officers in all they do.” 

Unlike the briefing delivered for decades by CIA, the current report “has more varied input from all the intelligence community, and is a better product,” says Rogers. 

CIA spokesman John Tomczyk says his agency still has an integral role in producing the briefing, even though it is now a DNI product. Its continuing development “has been enhanced by the close collaboration and cooperation between DNI and CIA officers,” he says.

The result is a more comprehensive—“fulsome” is Clapper’s characterization—report. “True in advertising, the CIA still is the centerpiece of all this, but there is much more engagement with the rest of the community,” he says.  

Spending Reform

Among the biggest changes for ODNI is the first-ever release of a top-line number for the intelligence budget. Up to that point, intelligence spending was largely kept under wraps. In October 2011,

Clapper published the final appropriation for the National Intelligence Program for fiscal 2011: $54.6 billion. Adding military intelligence operations, the budget rose to some $80.1 billion.

In 2010, the office also introduced the first performance-based intelligence budget, which attempts to link outcomes with spending priorities.

One promising area is trimming information technology costs while boosting information sharing among agencies. “IT is such an integral part of how the intelligence community operates,” Meyerrose says, adding all the discussions about putting resources in the best interest of the collective “replicate themselves in the IT discussion, whether
it’s policies, research, outcomes of programs, who’s authorized, who pays, how much, who’s accountable.”

Meyerrose believes ODNI has made good if not rapid progress in four IT areas: 

n Modernizing IT certification and accreditation authority to reflect modes such as the cloud and mobile devices.

n Establishing metadata standards across the community to ease information sharing.

n Joining the rest of the government in consolidating data centers to save money.

n Improving intelligence information sharing within the community. 

“The job of intelligence is not to collect secrets but to use secrets so that the policymaker, warfighter and program manager benefit,” he says.


As Clapper’s team works to anticipate threats, integrate the intelligence community and keep the public safe, its progress is overseen by the two congressional intelligence committees, the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, the President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, and the Office of Management and Budget.

The tensions over turf have produced some good results, according to Meyerrose. “Information sharing has improved over the past 10 years,” he says, “though not without gnashing of teeth and consternation.”

The near success of the Christmas 2009 bomber disturbed many. “There were mistakes, and the NCTC was a little slow on the uptake,” says Rogers, “but I didn’t see any catastrophic failures in the system. The trick is to ask what changes we need to make. And they did make changes.”

In 2011, the reconstituted 9/11 commission wrote, “In the six years since the creation of this post, the DNI has increased information sharing, improved coordination among agencies, sharpened collection priorities, brought additional expertise into the analysis of intelligence and further integrated the FBI into the overall intelligence effort. These are significant achievements.” But the report stopped short of validating ODNI as having arrived as a central authority. “It still is not clear, however, that the DNI is the driving force for intelligence community integration that we had envisioned,” the panel wrote, raising again the possibility of new authority over budgets and personnel. 

“That’s their opinion,” Clapper responds. “But that presupposes that every dysfunctional nail requires a legislative hammer. It’s not true. There’s something to be said for experience
and leadership.”

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