The White House has ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) to rely on CIA station chiefs as the primary foreign intelligence liaisons at U.S. embassies instead of giving the director of national intelligence (DNI) authority to appoint his own representatives when he sees fit .
The decision ends a turf war in which the CIA successfully defied its parent organization, ODNI, which was created to supervise and coordinate the efforts of the U.S. intelligence community after the intelligence failures that led to 9-11.
The months-long battle over which agency would represent the U.S. intelligence community to foreign governments and international organizations pitted CIA Director Leon Panetta against Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence.
The bureaucratic battle began in May when Blair issued a directive that said he would choose his own top intelligence representatives at U.S. embassies overseas. Nevertheless, "the directive provided that, in 'virtually all cases globally,' the representative would be a CIA station chief and that, before the appointment of anyone else, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta and the local U.S. ambassador would be consulted," reports The Washington Post. Panetta issued his own memorandum telling CIA officers to disregard Blair's memo because the matter hadn't been resolved yet.
The internal scuffle made its way up the chain to Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, where it was then handed to Vice President Joe Biden, who sided with the CIA.
While the White House's decision, according to The New York Times, was a blow to the ODNI's authority, there was a rational argument behind it.
Current and former C.I.A. officials argued that the matter is not just about bureaucratic turf. They said that the C.I.A. for years has cultivated relationships with foreign spy services — relationships that could be thrown into confusion if foreign spymasters were forced to deal with different American liaisons.
The Associated Press, who broke the story, reported much the same. Current and former CIA officials told the AP that Blair's directive could set up:
... competing chains of command inside U.S. embassies and potentially foul... up intelligence operations. They also warned that it could complicate the delicate relationships between U.S. and foreign intelligence services, and leave ambassadors confused about where to turn for intelligence advice.
ODNI officials, however, told the Times those fears weren't warranted.
Some of Mr. Blair’s aides dismissed these concerns as petty, and pointed out that in the vast majority of cases, the C.I.A. station chief would remain the top American representative abroad. But they said that in some instances it might make sense to for a representative from another agency to be the senior intelligence representative.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden told WTOP.com that the CIA, however, was the practical choice.
"In terms of operational art, history, even the way the community is wired - and I mean that literally, where the fiber optic cable goes - CIA's at the center of the American intelligence community. By legislation, the DNI is at the center," Hayden said.
Former Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, who battled with Hayden over the same issue, told WTOP.com that the DNI "would've been more appropriately named the coordinator of National Intelligence."