National Intelligence Director's Weakness Will Persist for Years, Expert Says

By Joseph Straw

The political conflicts that contributed to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair’s pending resignation will hamstring his successors for years to come, defense scholar William Lewis said today during an expert panel on the threat of homegrown terrorism.

“The fact that there have been four directors in five years doesn’t tell us that his is an enviable position,” said Lewis, a former professor at Johns Hopkins University and The George Washington University, speaking at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.

The DNI position was established by Congress in 2004 based primarily on the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission, to establish a single point of coordination and accountability tying together the various intelligence agencies in the federal government, military and civilian. The change came despite strong resistance within the intelligence establishment, in particular the CIA, that has persisted since.

(For more coverage on Blair's resignation, see "Director of National Intelligence Resigns.")

Blair’s resignation, requested by President Obama, followed the intelligence and information sharing failures that preceded Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attack on a Detriot-bound airliner last December. Separately, reports indicate that Blair resisted the expanded scope of covert CIA activities that enjoyed White House support, The New York Times reported.

Reforming leadership of the intelligence community again is a non-starter due primarily to a lack of will among senior members of Congress, who might support elimination of the DNI, but have vastly different opinions of how authority should be distributed in its absence, Lewis said.  Some want full authority for defense intelligence operations to fall solely under the secretary of defense, while others insist that prior to 2004 the CIA director was the de facto DNI, and should be again. Lewis said that latter view is fundamentally inaccurate.

The White House, meanwhile, has higher policy priorities on which to spend its political capital. The only cure may be time—years, Lewis said—for institutional cultures to meld to the already six-year-old arrangement.

“We can work with it to a point, but it tells is that for the next few years we’re going to have an ineffective system,” Lewis said.

Achieving the perception of success as DNI is so unlikely, Lewis joked that a search for a willing replacement may lead the Obama Administration all the way down to the military’s second lieutenants.

The panel discussion marked the publication of Terrorists in Our Midst, a new book edited by Yonah Alexander, director of the Potomac Institute’s International Center for Terrorism Studies.

Retired Brig. Gen. David Reist, USMC, a contributor to the book and a panelist, warned against complacency, emphasis on historical threats, and disregard for emerging ones—an error that contributed to the success of the 9-11 attacks after decades of growing Islamic extremism.

♦ Photo of paper crowns by kate at yr own risk/Flickr


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