(Sorry: been a crazy morning. I’m here now.)

If you want an 800-word post on the structural issues facing the intelligence community after Dennis Blair leaves work today next Friday*,  I wrote one just for you. This quote, from an intelligence veteran, might be a good summary of the piece’s still-beating heart:

“The current system creates bureaucrats whose focus is building their empire — more bodies, more money — all in the name of national security. His position was created to fix the intelligence bureaucratic failures, but growing bureaucracies to fix bureaucracies is a losing bet.”

Remember that this DNI stuff all started because for decades, the leader of the intelligence community was the leader of the CIA, and leading the CIA meant, in practice, not having the bandwidth to give a shit about, say, Naval intelligence. The 9/11 Commission, like the Joint Inquiry of the House and Senate intel committees into 9/11 before it, really focused on how when George Tenet said in 1998 that the U.S. was “at war” with al-Qaeda, the only player that suited up was the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. That meant 15 1/2 intelligence agencies were non-responsive to the command of the nominal leader of the intelligence community. A no-no. Strategic-level intelligence coherence: that was the Spirit of 2004.

When the DNI position came to be a few months later, the idea was that it would be a small office, with more of a mandate for coordination and integration of the community than the specific statutory-backed heft to move resources around. A gentle, fatherly hand, if you will, to make sure that the powerful intelligence chiefs were all rowing in the same direction. What happened over the first two years of the position’s life was Bureaucracy Doing Its Thing: it accumulated staff and heft, taking, among other things, strategic intelligence analysis under its purview. (I did a TNR piece on this in 2006 but can’t find it.) But the individual intelligence chiefs really still ran their own things, particularly at CIA, DIA and NSA, and their coordination depended less on the budgetary authority of the bureaucratizing DNI than on the chiefs’ sense that buying into the DNI’s plans is in their interest. Think of them — and I’m going to blow your fucking mind on this — like the daimyo caste during Japan’s Tokugawa Bakufu era. The Shogun is powerful, but he’s powerful insofar as the daimyo are willing to recognize and respect his power. (Ultimately, the daimyo overthrew the Shogun.)

My strong guess at this point is that there just isn’t the appetite to either do away with the structure or make something like a Department of Intelligence to replace it. Just too much on the agenda, and there was a major structural reform five years ago that brought us here. Whatever the merits of changing the system root-n-branch, doing so for the second time in a decade has zero real political constituency. And to answer David’s question, getting rid of the DNI will still leave us with the coordination problems that the 9/11 Commission insightfully identified, even if Marc Ambinder is right that the solutions the Commission pursued have led us to a situation disturbingly reminiscent of those precise circumstances. Expect lots of margin-tinkering about statutory authorities.

But What If. What if the right model for inter-community coordination prioritized and incentivized mission focus rather than clustering of community resources around issues? What if the way you got the coherence we’re all after was through saying, we’re going to organize the different intel services around core capabilities that the country needs and then swarm them together when there’s a particular priority to be executed? NCTC, in this model, doesn’t have to exist forever, anymore than does the National Counterproliferation Center that you probably forgot exists. Instead, you’d create task forces across the different agencies for surging capacity on missions, and the permanent structure in place is to resource those missions. Yes, that’s right: I’m talking about a Goldwater-Nichols Act for the intelligence community. Yo, PNSR: this is your bread and butter! Assemble the Greybeards! Convene the Blue-Ribboning!

*I never claimed to be able to read calendars correctly.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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