President Barack Obama’s appointment of retired Gen. James Clapper as the director of national intelligence (DNI) demonstrates the Pentagon’s enormous influence over the president and indicates that there is little likelihood of genuine reform of the hidebound intelligence community. Once again, the president has appointed a general officer to an important strategic position that should be in the hands of an experienced civilian who understands the need for change. President Obama has given retired generals the key positions of national security adviser, ambassadors to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and DNI (on two occasions in a 17-month period) to career military officers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is about to name a retired general who was responsible for special operations in Afghanistan as the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism. These career military officers are not known for strategic thinking, having been trained to focus on worst-case assessments of geopolitical problems. It is no wonder that there have few diplomatic successes during the Obama administration, that the State Department remains underused and without influence and that the humongous Pentagon budget remains largely untouchable.
In the political panic that followed the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration permitted the creation of two large bureaucratic entities – the Department of Homeland Security and the office of national intelligence – that have been largely sclerotic and demonstrated genuine incompetence during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the attempted suicide bombing of a commercial airliner in 2009, respectively. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has convinced the mainstream media that Clapper’s predecessor, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, was forced to resign because of the pathetic performance of the intelligence community in December 2009 when the young Nigerian bomber was permitted to board a commercial airline and the Central Intelligence Agency demonstrated incredible incompetence in a series of events that led to the successful bombing of its most important operational base in Afghanistan.
In fact, Blair cannot be blamed for these intelligence failures. The CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), the National Security Agency (NSA) and the State Department were all at fault for the attempted suicide bombing. The State Department ignored the Nigerian’s multiple-entry visa for the United States, the State Department and the CIA ignored warnings from the Nigerian’s father; the NSA didn’t exploit collection opportunities that would have provided significant information and NCTC failed to pursue information that would have placed the Nigerian on a no-fly list. The NCTC should have had operational control of counterterrorism operations, but the 2004 statute that created Blair’s position specifically states that the NCTC director “may not direct the execution of counterterrorism operations.” President Obama’s principal adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan, should have taken this problem to Congress, where it needs to be corrected; he still hasn’t done so. None of the numerous human errors that were made could be placed at Blair’s door; no one has been held accountable or even responsible.
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Blair’s major problem was one he shares with many general and flag officers who lack experience in Washington but are placed in sensitive political positions for which they are not prepared. As a result, Blair created unnecessary battles within the intelligence community that he was destined to lose, particularly the effort to control the appointment of chiefs in CIA stations that are located in US embassies around the world. Station chiefs have always been CIA operations officers and it simply made no sense to raise the possibility of placing NSA officers or Defense Intelligence Agency officers as station chiefs. Blair lost that battle, but that did not stop him from trying to halt all clandestine operations in France, which would have weakened the CIA’s counterterrorism mission and placed the CIA too close to a French intelligence operation that has been penetrated by foreign intelligence over the years. Blair also never established a personal rapport with President Obama, despite his regular visits to the White House to conduct intelligence briefings. Military officers typically lack the background and experience to provide these largely geopolitical briefings, which should be given by intelligence professionals.
If President Obama were truly interested in intelligence reform, he would have abolished the office of national intelligence and the position of intelligence czar or at least placed the DNI in civilian hands to counter the Pentagon’s control of intelligence personnel and intelligence spending. The Pentagon already controls nearly 85 percent of the $70 billion intelligence budget and nearly 90 percent of the 100,000 intelligence personnel. Active duty and retired general officers now command nearly all of the major institutions of the intelligence community, although my 18 years on the faculty of the National War College confirmed my impression that military officers are not distinguished in the fields of strategic intelligence or geopolitical problem solving.
Strategic management of the 16 agencies of the intelligence community is the DNI’s major challenge, but the last three intelligence czars have been unqualified general and flag officers. The absence of an independent civilian to counter the power of military intelligence threatens civilian control of the decision to use military power and makes it more likely that intelligence will be tailored to suit the purposes of the Pentagon. The president’s erratic decision making on Afghanistan over the past year points to military domination of the decision making process.
Finally, the mainstream media, particularly The New York Times, has demonstrated an ability to accept briefing guidance from the White House on the Clapper appointment and an inability to scrutinize Obama’s actions. Saturday’s New York Times, for example, cited Clapper’s “decades of experience” without mentioning that his experience in communications intelligence and military spy operations is not relevant to his major missions as intelligence czar. The Times credited the president with “pushing the reset button” in order to “recalibrate the intelligence structure,” when Clapper’s appointment really amounts to new wine in old bottles. The Times also discussed Clapper’s ability to refashion and reorganize the intelligence community, without noting that the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence has veto power over the ability of the DNI to transfer personnel or budgetary authority from individual intelligence agencies into joint centers or other agencies in order to integrate strategic intelligence.
Clapper is familiar with this problem even if the mainstream media isn’t; he served as undersecretary for intelligence for both Secretaries of Defense Gates and Donald Rumsfeld. At that time, moreover, he was responsible for managing the Counterintelligence Field Activities Office, which managed an illegal database that included information about antiwar protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting halls. Perhaps, some of these issues will be raised at his Senate confirmation hearings.