Leon Panetta, Dennis Blair
Lawrence Jackson  /  AP
CIA chief Leon Panetta, left, and National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair are at odds over the role of CIA station chiefs in U.S. embassies.
updated 5/27/2009 5:49:52 PM ET 2009-05-27T21:49:52

A turf war between the two senior intelligence chiefs over the role of CIA station chiefs in U.S. embassies has forced National Security Adviser James L. Jones to step in to mediate, according to current and former U.S. government officials.

The jockeying between CIA director Leon Panetta and National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair centers on Blair's effort to choose his own representatives abroad instead of relying only on CIA station chiefs, the current and former officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the dispute.

The national intelligence director, a position created after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, oversees and coordinates activities of the CIA and the 15 other civilian spy agencies and is the president's chief intelligence adviser.

Former and current CIA officials have warned that Blair's plan could create competing chains of command inside U.S. embassies that could potentially foul up intelligence operations, complicate the delicate relationships between U.S. and foreign intelligence services and confuse ambassadors over whom to rely on for intelligence advice.

CIA station chiefs posted in embassies have handled the national intelligence role abroad since 2005, but Blair wants the option of designating other intelligence specialists for the job. Blair's move has prompted strong objections from Panetta and has been referred to Jones to settle.

Calling the shots
Blair's plan is contained in a classified May 19 intelligence community directive, a policy document periodically issued by his office to the 16 agencies under his direction.

From the DNI's perspective, the proposal would allow Blair to tap the most relevant intelligence officer in an embassy or foreign country to serve as his eyes and ears.

In most cases that would be the CIA station chief. The station chief system has existed for 50 years, allowing the CIA to call the shots on pursuing and managing relationships with foreign intelligence and security services, and coordinating, and sometimes constraining, the work of other U.S. intelligence agencies and military forces in their assigned country.

In some countries the United States has few if any spies on the ground and relies instead on electronic eavesdropping to collect intelligence. A former senior intelligence official said that in those cases, Blair might want to have the senior National Security Agency officer at the embassy serve as his personal representative.

The CIA derailed a similar effort last year by the national intelligence director's office, then headed by former Adm. Mike McConnell.

Blair's directive was described by some government officials as an attempt to shore up both the office's authority and ability to oversee foreign operations, which has so far been stronger on paper than in practice.

Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing in January that he intended to exercise fully the authorities of the DNI's office. He also said if the authorities proved inadequate, he would ask Congress and the president to strengthen them.

Neither agency would comment officially.

"This matter is under review by the national security adviser and we have no further comment," CIA spokesman George Little said.

Blair's spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi, would not comment. The National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.

Chain of command
The dispute over the espionage organizational chart could have far-reaching implications, according to former and current CIA officials, all of whom oppose the change.

The officials said the move could lead to a bisected intelligence structure in the field that would end up with CIA station chiefs carrying out day-to-day spy operations while intelligence director representatives oversee and report back to Blair on the same operations. CIA veterans warned it could complicate and slow missions that require rapid decisions.

CIA officials also said the move could confuse or degrade long-standing relationships with foreign intelligence agencies who would not know whether to work with station chiefs or DNI personal representatives.

CIA officials questioned whether national intelligence director's representatives would be able to overrule station chiefs.

Blair's exertion of his authority complicates a relationship with the CIA that was already strained. The mandate for the DNI's office to foster better cooperation and communication between the 16 disparate intelligence agencies has traditionally been handled by the power of persuasion.

More on: Leon Panetta   |  Dennis Blair

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