The DNI at 10: Are We Safer or Just Lucky?

It will be a few days before you see this, but I am writing on December 7th, which has special meaning for me because of my career as a Naval Intelligence Officer. The failure to warn, despite a variety of indicators that became clear after this Day of Infamy in 1941, resulted in the formation of the modern Intelligence Community with the National Security Act of 1947.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created, well, to centralize intelligence so it would not be fragmented across the Army, Navy, State Department, FBI, War Department, and the Pacific Fleet as it was in the weeks leading up to the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor.

In advance of similar findings by the 9-11 Commission, the Pearl Harbor Commission (aka the Roberts Commission) as well as numerous books (my favorites are Gordon Prange’s “At Dawn We Slept and Eddie Layton’s “And I Was There”) based on archival material found that for a variety of security and bureaucratic reasons critical pieces of intelligence were not put into a mosaic.  Such a mosaic, though incomplete, would have provided President Roosevelt, General Short, and Admiral Kimmel sufficient grounds to launch the fleet if for no other reason than to make sure that Japan’s six unlocated aircraft carriers were not approaching the Hawaiian Islands.

In similar fashion, the 9-11 Commission also found that the Intelligence Community (IC), which had grown from five to 15 members since 1947, possessed a myriad of intelligence leads that if viewed as a composite probably would have given the federal government the warning needed to disrupt the fatal attacks on New York and Washington.  Following the pattern of 1947, the Congress (though this time with the ambivalence of the Executive Branch) decided that the IC needed stronger central leadership to insure that all the information the IC had on threats to national security would be shared across the IC and analyzed holistically.  Consequently, the position of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was created in December 2004 with the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) joining the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was established in November 2002.  The Congress’ intention for both of these new organizations was to make America safer through centralized management and decentralized execution of intelligence and homeland security functions.

Channeling Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan let me ask you,  “so in all the confusion from the 9-11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the change of administrations, the Arab Spring, civil war in Syria, ISIS beheadings, and terrorist attacks abroad in the 10 years since the DNI was established:  do you feel safer punk or just lucky?”  This past October a University of Texas conference in Austin titled “Intelligence Reform and Counterterrorism after a Decade: Are We Smarter and Safer?” took an organized, dispassionate look at the effect of the DNI on national security and I think reasonably concluded that yes we are smarter about the threats that confront us, and yes we are safer; but we are not smart enough nor are we safe enough.

The disruption of several plots preventing other high casualty attacks in the Continental United States (CONUS) is at least circumstantial evidence that the investment in the DNI as a government entity is worthwhile because it has kept us safe.  But this begs the obvious question of whether it is the existence of the DNI or the doubling of both the size and budget of the IC since 9-11 that has resulted in no successful attacks on the homeland.  Of course, what neither the bureaucratic reality of the DNI nor the quantitative plus up of the IC’s budget has stemmed is the multitude of threats facing the United States from ISIS, the rise of Russia, the assertiveness of China, Iran’s nuclear intentions, the unpredictability of North Korea, disease and failed states in Africa, the potential of a radicalized Pakistan, a migration/immigration crisis on our southern border, the increasing lethal potential of “lone wolf” attacks, insider threat potential, and cyber vulnerabilities everywhere.  DNI Jim Clapper refers to this reality when he says in all of his public appearances that the current threat environment “is the worse he has seen during his 53 years in the IC.”  In a sound bite “the world is even more dangerous today than it was in 2001.”

For me this is reminiscent of the first 10 years of the CIA, when the Soviet Union changed from a country ravaged by World War II to a nuclear superpower presenting an existential threat to the United States.  Certainly the existence of the CIA didn’t make Soviet Russia into a super power but it did provide the organizational means for centralizing resources for collecting and analyzing intelligence about the capabilities and intentions of the USSR that enabled America’s dual strategies of containment and mutual assured destruction (MAD).  The world today is not bi-polar anymore so the important role of the DNI is not so much the centralization of IC resources against a monolithic threat, but rather allocating IC resources for dealing with an expanding threat environment resulting from a multi-polar globalized world that is increasingly empowered by (and dependent upon) information technology (IT) that is becoming less expensive and more capable every 18 months.

So this punk’s answer to Inspector Callahan’s question is not one he would accept as “I am not sure if the US is safer today or has just been lucky.”  We have enjoyed the benefits of both a stronger IC along with some good luck.  I am, however, reasonably certain that the DNI position will endure and therefore remain in position to shape the IC for how it prepares and organizes itself for the threats the IC projects to US security.  Yes, to be more effective I would like to see the ODNI staff shrunk dramatically to only numbers needed to support DNI decisions regarding how resources should be apportioned to threats and lead responsibilities assigned to deal with them.  Moreover, I believe a DNI as CEO for the IC conglomerate would increase accountability and reduce our dependence on luck for keeping our nation safe from attack.

That’s what I think: what do you think?

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