I’ll admit I was wrong.
Back in 2011, my former colleague Mieke Eoyang and I wrote a piece for Politico asking whether the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) under General James Clapper actually had a purpose. This was the time when two DC celebrities—David Petraeus at CIA and Leon Panetta at the Pentagon—threatened to bury the ODNI with their starpower. “The ODNI was a bad idea,” we sniffed, “that hasn’t improved with age.”
But how the wheel of fortune has turned. Both Petraeus and Panetta have moved on to other endeavors. On the other hand, General Clapper, the consummate intelligence officer, stands alone. And it looks like Clapper has finally found a reason for the ODNI to exist. Multiple reasons, actually:
The Team Player: Under Clapper, the ODNI has gotten out of the way of most of the basic functions of the other intelligence agencies. The ODNI seems to have wisely stepped away from trying to be “all intelligence things to all people.” Instead, it allows the NSA does what the NSA does best, the CIA does what CIA does best, et cetera. From what I gather, the ODNI makes sure the “lanes in the road” are followed.
Flowing from the détente is that the institutional turf wars that plagued some of Clapper’s predecessors seem to have dissipated. For example, back in 2009, former DNI Dennis Blair got into a nasty and very public food fight with the CIA Director over who would appoint chiefs of station in various countries—one that forced the National Security Advisor James Jones to play the reluctant umpire. The ODNI lost that battle. This kind of bureaucratic tomfoolery doesn’t seem to occur under Clapper’s tenure.
The President’s Ear: The President’s Daily Brief remains the analytic crown jewel for the Intelligence Community. It’s such a well-regarded document that NBC has a new show, State of Affairs, dedicated to the adventures & misadventures of the President’s PDB briefer. But it’s also one that is dominated by CIA analysis—understandably so, since CIA is one of the few organizations in the Intelligence Community that has the analytical resources to fill a daily book.
Yet over the last few years Clapper has carved out a significant role for himself as the nation’s top intelligence officer with the so-called “walk on.” There, the DNI or his deputy (formerly Robert Cardillo and now Michael Dempsey) would brief the President almost daily on a wide range of intelligence matters that might not have been in the PDB.
Unlike President Bush, who liked to have wide-ranging conversations with his CIA briefer, President Obama reportedly prefers to read his book (actually, it’s now on an iPad) without a briefer, minimizing his or her impact. Yet the President meets with Clapper and/or his deputy almost every day. In a town where “face time” with important people remains the coin of the realm, the DNI has become a quiet—but real—force in town.
The Utility Infielder: Director Clapper’s successful effort to spring two Americans from a North Korean gulag last year shows his office provides real value under unique circumstances. Pyongyang reportedly wanted a cabinet-level official to visit to get these hostages out, and even though the DNI doesn’t serve in the cabinet, it was good enough—and Clapper was senior and well-respected enough—to accomplish the mission. And at the end of the day, that’s what mattered.
And who knows what other ways that the Office or its leader could be used to advance American national security interests? For example, if the DNI had to go to Iran to finalize a deal over its nuclear weapons, Clapper would be on the first flight to Tehran.
A White House Firewall: In politics, you need someone who can take the heat off the White House when the debate really kicks into gear. Since the ODNI oversees the rest of the intelligence agencies, the office has fallen into this role. In 2013, Sen. Ron Wyden asked Clapper whether the NSA collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded “No sir. Not wittingly.” Following the subsequent Snowden revelations, Clapper was later lambasted by the press, even though he was put in an impossible situation which required him to either divulge classified information in an open hearing or be accused of lying to Congress.
Regardless of what one thinks about whether Clapper gave the “right” split-second answer at the time, the ODNI broadly provides a firewall for the White House and the other intelligence agencies. This is because the ODNI provides a convenient whipping horse for those who take issue with the overarching stances of the intelligence community. Recall that Sen. Wyden asked Clapper about NSA issues, even though he doesn’t run or even really control that organization (NSA falls under the Pentagon.) And so the ODNI has become the broad target that Congress, the public, and the press use to score points. While that might seem like a lousy place for ODNI employees to be placed in, it also demonstrates the growing stature of the DNI position.
To be sure, ODNI could fill additional gaps across the Intelligence Community. Much of the Office’s institutional efforts over the last decade have focused on breaking down “stovepipes.” This was obviously important in the post 9/11 era. But today, the Community the DNI oversees faces a multiplicity of threats combined with declining budgets. Hence, the ODNI needs to adjust accordingly and focus increasingly on streamlining the often-bloated national security bureaucracy and making its efforts more efficient. The ODNI should wield its budgetary authority as both scalpel and broadsword. It should take a harder look at how intelligence agencies are using their finite resources. The institution should also be more aggressive in providing a “public face” for a secret world that is, at the end of the day, still completely paid for by the American taxpayer.
Of course, the institution will outlast its leader, and it’s unclear what will happen when Director James Clapper leaves his post. The ODNI still has somewhat fuzzy statutory authority—and that’s why the institution requires a technocrat whose temperament befits the position, since he (or she) will need to work the gears of bureaucracy and personal relationships built up over a lifetime to achieve its goals. Conversely, if an individual with the wrong temperament is put in charge, the ODNI could quickly go off the rails—and much of the progress built up over the last few years can be lost. This is something the White House must consider when Clapper decides it’s time to hang up his spurs.
The ODNI is certainly far from perfect, and the critique that it’s just another layer of bureaucracy on top of multiple layers of bureaucracy still has merit. But given the level of criticism leveled at the organization since its founding, the ODNI has come a long way. And Director Clapper, navigating a semi-secret world of big mouths and bigger egos, has done much to carve out a purpose and a direction for this institution.
photo: DNI Clapper at the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment briefing.