NYT's reporter Mark Mazzetti covers a recent dispute between Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, and Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It could be that Blair is picking on the C.I.A. because he knows that he can't take on the Pentagon, which is by far a bigger player, said Amy Zegart, a professor at UCLA
Turf Battles on Intelligence Pose Test for Spy Chiefs
By Mark Mazzetti
This article first published by the New York Times
Published June 8, 2009
WASHINGTON - On May 19, Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, sent a classified memorandum announcing that his office would use its authority to select the top American spy in each country overseas.
One day later, Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, sent a dispatch of his own. Ignore Mr. Blair’s message, Mr. Panetta wrote to agency employees; the C.I.A. was still in charge overseas, a role that C.I.A. station chiefs had jealously guarded for decades.
The dispute has posed an early test for both spymasters, with Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, now trying to negotiate a truce. The behind-the-scenes battle shows the intensity of struggles continuing between intelligence agencies whose roles were left ill defined after a structural overhaul in 2004 that was intended to harness greater cooperation and put an end to internecine fights.
The C.I.A. has run foreign intelligence operations from American embassies since the 1940s, and agency officials fear that Mr. Blair and his Office of the Director of National Intelligence are making a power play that could jeopardize longstanding relationships with foreign intelligence services.
For his part, Mr. Blair, a career Navy man, is said to have been furious about what he perceived as insubordination by Mr. Panetta, whose agency is now outranked by the national intelligence director’s office.
Mr. Blair came to the job determined to cement the intelligence chief’s authority over 16 disparate spy agencies, and intelligence experts said that the current dispute with the C.I.A. was a litmus test for whether the White House was willing to back him in this effort.
Mr. Panetta, meanwhile, has tried to calm nerves in Langley, Va., in part by assuring agency employees that he will fight for C.I.A. authorities at the White House. Mr. Panetta, a White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, has close relationships with several of President Obama’s senior aides, including Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.
But it is Mr. Blair who appears to be garnering the support of influential lawmakers, some of whom say they are angry that the C.I.A. has not accepted its reduced role in the intelligence firmament.
“We need to move intelligence away from the cold war mind-set, and the C.I.A. has a problem to some extent accepting that,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Blair and Mr. Panetta met for the first time just days before Mr. Obama stood with them on a stage in January and announced their nominations. Despite having very different professional backgrounds, they have for the most part developed a cordial working relationship, officials said.
Although Mr. Panetta maintains close ties to some White House officials, it is Mr. Blair who spends more time in the Oval Office, as he sometimes delivers Mr. Obama’s daily intelligence briefing in person. Mr. Blair, a retired admiral, also has known General Jones for years, as the two men ascended to the military’s highest ranks during the same period.
Mr. Blair took over an office born out of the intelligence failures before the Iraq war, and almost since its inception the national intelligence director’s operations have been criticized as being bloated and ineffective. Last year, the inspector general at the national intelligence director’s office issued a withering report criticizing it as unable to end the turf battles that for years plagued the intelligence community and were partly responsible to the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even more criticism comes from current and former C.I.A. officials, who often portray the intelligence chief’s office as an unnecessary bureaucracy that gums up machinery in need of streamlining. For their part, officials who work for the director of national intelligence sometime portray the C.I.A. as hidebound, turf-obsessed and insular.
More than a dozen current and former government officials were interviewed for this article, most insisting on anonymity because they were concerned about appearing to try to influence White House officials in the dispute. The fact that the White House has intervened in the matter was first reported by The Associated Press.
Some current and former officials portray the C.I.A. resistance to the May 19 directive as petty, as C.I.A. station chiefs are likely to remain America’s senior intelligence representatives in a vast majority of countries. These officials say nevertheless that in some countries it may be more appropriate for a representative from another agency, like the National Security Agency or the Drug Enforcement Administration, to be the senior intelligence representative.
For instance, the National Security Agency, responsible for electronic eavesdropping, has a large listening station in Britain that is part of an extensive eavesdropping partnership between the United States and Britain. Some argue that the national intelligence director’s office should designate an N.S.A. official to coordinate intelligence activities in London.
Other examples that officials raise are countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, where a large American military presence might lead the national intelligence director to pick an official from the Defense Intelligence Agency.
But some outside experts criticize Mr. Blair’s decision to take on the C.I.A., especially when the Pentagon still controls large parts of the secret intelligence budget.
“It could be that Blair is picking on the C.I.A. because he knows that he can’t take on the Pentagon, which is by far a bigger player,” said Amy Zegart, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who writes extensively on intelligence matters.
The C.I.A. has insisted for years that the issue is about far more than bureaucratic turf. Some central intelligence officials even threatened to resign in 2005 when John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, proposed installing an N.S.A. operative as the top American intelligence official in Wellington, New Zealand.
The biggest danger, the C.I.A. has argued, is jeopardizing the relationships between its station chiefs and foreign intelligence operatives that have taken years to cultivate.
Michael V. Hayden, who ran the C.I.A. from 2006 until the end of the Bush administration, often jousted with officials from the national intelligence director’s office over who should be station chiefs. Under the law, Mr. Hayden said, it is the C.I.A.’s duty to manage the United States’ partnerships with foreign spy services, and changing that dynamic might further bewilder allies who already do not understand America’s intelligence bureaucracy.
“When we get a liaison partner coming to Washington, they are already confused about who they should be dealing with here,” he said. “Now, you could be creating that same circumstance in a foreign capital.”