What does the ODNI office of Policy & Strategy actually do?

on October 28 | in Intelligence Reform

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In a recent conversation with a colleague, I remarked the ODNI needed a policy shop, just like the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff or the Pentagon’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Such an office would help steer the Intelligence Community through difficult times, allow it to respond more strategically to a myriad of challenges, and force the ODNI to consider more than a narrow information sharing mission.

To my surprise, I’ve discovered that the ODNI already has a Policy & Strategy (P&S) office, led by an Assistant Director of National Intelligence for Policy and Strategy.

This begs the question—what does this office actually do? And why didn’t I know it existed?

Perhaps this just reflects my ignorance—I’ve never worked in at the ODNI and have less exposure to the administrative side of the Intelligence Community. But during my time as an intelligence practitioner, as well as my more recent work in intelligence policy, I have engaged with a diverse group of intelligence professionals and have developed a good understanding of the seventeen agencies that make up the community, including components of the ODNI. Nonetheless, I was not aware of this particular ODNI component.

A more likely explanation is that the P&S office, despite its important-sounding name, doesn’t actually exert much influence over policy or strategy. That is why I haven’t heard of it.

One can tell a lot about an organization from the verbs it uses to describe it own activity. On the ODNI website, P&S blandly notes that it unifies, promotes, integrates, and evaluates. Its role is to “[s]upport and enable the success of others.” The P&S website states that it “Promote[s] an integrated Intelligence Enterprise by developing the National Intelligence Strategy.” The 2014 National Intelligence Strategy (NIS), which was released last month, is a broad consensus document that does not provide a useful guild to IC policy. It’s even less substantive than the 2009 NIS, which was itself a bit thin on actual policy and strategy.

This suggests P&S is a passive consumer defined by other parts of the community. It synthesizes policy. It does not shape policy. In comparison, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff was originally established by George Kennan and has been run by individuals of such sterling reputations such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Richard Haass. That shop has a broad mandate, serving “as an internal think tank for the Department of State – undertaking broad analytical studies of regional and functional issues, identifying gaps in policy, and initiating policy planning and formulation to fill these gaps.”

From what I can tell, P&S is not an internal think tank but is rather, like many ODNI offices, a complex cat-herding operation. Don’t get me wrong: Cat-herding is difficult work and I don’t mean to diminish the effort that takes within the IC. But there’s a big difference between consolidating the diverse approaches of different intelligence agencies and the type of aggressive policy formulation necessary to actually guide the IC at this complex time in the history of American intelligence.

I’m happy to be proven wrong in my assessment. As such, I’d welcome additional insights here from someone who has worked in or closely with the ODNI’s P&S office.

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