A turf war is being waged in the closed world of U.S. intelligence agencies that could disrupt how spy operations are carried out around the world, according to former and current CIA officials.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which for the past four years has overseen U.S. intelligence agencies, is angling for more power over and insight into spy operations worldwide. At stake is the authority of the CIA's legendary station chiefs, who for 60 years have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in overseas intelligence operations.
In 2005, the director designated an intelligence officer to be his personal representative at embassies, military commands and posts. Overseas, that top dog was the station chief.
Now, that may be changing. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell is writing a new directive that leaves open the possibility that the title could be bestowed on someone other than a CIA station chief. In some cases — particularly in countries where there are large concentrations of U.S. troops — the director may anoint the defense attache, one former intelligence official suggested. In others, where there are fewer human spies but more intelligence collection by electronic gadgets, it may be the senior National Security Agency officer.
Hayden defends station chiefs
CIA Director Michael Hayden said the CIA is willing to cede ground to other agencies at some military commands and in the United States, but the authority and responsibility now vested in CIA station chiefs makes them the only logical choice overseas.
"We believe very strongly that overseas CIA station chiefs should be the DNI reps," Hayden said in an interview with The Associated Press this week. "It's just good government."
The White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
Station chiefs are the top CIA officer in a given country. They are the intelligence adviser to the U.S. ambassador and the primary liaison with foreign intelligence agencies. They also have de facto veto power over other U.S. intelligence agencies' planned operations inside the country, said a former special forces officer and other intelligence officials. All spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
What looks like a simple adjustment to an organizational chart could have far-reaching implications. Among the top concerns of current and former CIA officials:
- It could lead to a bisected intelligence structure in the field that has the station chief on one side carrying out day-to-day spy operations and an intelligence director representative on the other trying to manage those same operations, and coordinate other intelligence outfits as well. This could complicate and slow missions that require rapid decisions.
- It may confuse or degrade long-standing relationships with foreign intelligence agencies, which for decades have trusted the CIA with their nations' secrets.
- And would the director's representative be able to overrule a station chief?
Certain to upset CIA
Mark Lowenthal, a former assistant director of the CIA, said the director's bid for more power overseas is not necessarily a bad idea, but it is certain to upset the CIA, which sees it as a threat to its traditional autonomy.
"I'm willing to listen to a conversation about the idea. But I can assure it's going to have the CIA up in arms," Lowenthal said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence is meant to direct and draw together the disparate and sometimes uncooperative efforts of the 16 intelligence agencies. It also advises the president, National Security Council and Homeland Security Council on intelligence matters. It also delivers the president's daily intelligence briefing, a job that previously belonged to the CIA.
Congress created the office in 2004 in hastily written legislation produced after the report of the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan panel that investigated government missteps before the 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
Little actual power
But there was a birth defect: The law failed to give the national intelligence director much actual power. While the director has direct access to the president, he neither controls the budgets nor the personnel of the intelligence agencies he ostensibly leads. All the intelligence agencies under the director report to their respective Cabinet secretaries — the defense secretary, the secretary of state and the attorney general, for instance.
The one exception to that is the CIA. Because the CIA director is not a Cabinet secretary, the DNI's office has had direct authority over it for the past four years.
The DNI's new directive is wrapped up in the revision of executive order 12333, created during the Reagan administration and being updated to reflect the law that established the DNI's office.
The director is also seeking authority in the executive order to "synchronize intelligence collection" activities abroad, another responsibility that generally falls to the station chief, according to a former official who read a draft of the executive order.