Obama Team Infighting on Intelligence

The easiest prediction in Washington is this one: “bureaucratic turf war.” The Obama Administration isn’t immune. Several months ago when the president-elect announced his names for DNI and CIA director, I put forth this idea:  “Swap Blair and Panetta: A Modest Proposal.”  In it I wondered, between the two of them, “Who gets the top bunk?”

Well, they still haven’t figured that out yet. 

Panetta, Obama, BlairAP’s Pamela Hess reported their conflict in a story last night: “CIA, intel director locked in spy turf battle.”  According to her reporting, “The nation’s two intelligence chiefs are locked in a turf battle over overseas posts, forcing National Security Adviser James L. Jones to mediate.” 

The Washington Post’s “Federal Eye” blog this morning reinforces the fight: “The Eye loves a good turf war and it appears there’s a big one brewing in the intelligence community.”

The dispute reportedly centers on what CIA sees as ODNI encroachment on CIA’s traditional control over intelligence personnel overseas – “creating competing chains of command inside U.S. embassies and potentially fouling up intelligence operations,” in Hess’s story.  At it’s heart, apparently, is ye olde CIA-NSA rivalry: “Blair might want to have the senior National Security Agency officer instead of the station chief at the embassy serve as his personal representative” in some countries. And reportedly that’s not the only issue in dispute.

So, as I predicted, some see Blair as trying to play the role of spymaster, not bureaucratic overseer. As I wrote in the original post before his confirmation:

Blair’s experience by contrast is operational – which it could be argued is poorly suited for the other nine-tenths of the DNI job, particularly in an Obama administration pursuing community-wide reform, development of soft power, and significantly less reliance on military operations as levers of state.”

I ended that post with this:

I’ll be watching over the first year as the relative centers-of-gravity settle between Blair and Panetta, and how they balance their roles.  We might all hope that we won’t detect any chafing by Panetta at Blair’s intimate role with President Obama, when it is Panetta himself who sat in a West Wing office for years. And we might hope not to see any ODNI exasperation at budget wizardry on behalf of one agency alone by the old OMB hand Panetta.  We’ll need to watch, basically, for signs of who is number one and who is number two.”

There is not yet a clear answer.

When I was a college student at the University of Virginia, studying international politics, my first two years overlapped with the latter two years of the Carter Administration. I was just one year behind my sister Susan at UVA, and we actually took together several graduate-level international relations seminars, including with the legendary on-campus CIA recruiter/professor Whittle Johnston.  To keep up with current events, she and I subscribed to the Washington Post, and each day I’d read of internecine warfare between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (and later Ed Muskie) and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Stories daily recounted (with unnamed anonymous sources) the sniping, the badmouthing, the intentional undermining of one or another aspect of official administration policy by rival administration officials.

For quite a while, I said to myself, this is pure media hype, there can’t be such internal combat going on within an administration!  Why, the President or his chief of staff would put an end to that kind of nonsense immediately! I blamed the Post and its reporters for trying to create news through hyped conflict.

It turned out, I was wrong and they were right. The battles were real. (I even confirmed it later by reading both administration memoirs by Vance and Zbiggy.)  Vance resigned, in part due to losing yet again to Zbig over Iran policy during the hostage crisis.

During my last two undergrad years, I then read daily accounts of conflict within the new Reagan Administration, originally between Sec. of State Al “I’m in control here” Haig and Defense Secretary Cap Weinberger. Weinberger had been nicknamed “Cap the Knife” in an earlier administration with his OMB track-record, but as Pentagon chief under Reagan he earned the nickname “The Shovel” for the increases in military spending he won.  But even Weinberger lost internal battles over control of traditional defense intelligence, as DCI Bill Casey stretched his operational tentacles to new levels, reaching even into the White House NSC through ties with Col. Oliver North. You’ll remember where all that led.

So these internecine battles are critical to watch as they develop, even this early in the Obama Administration. The sheen of unanimity over the new team is off, which was inevitable. Now we’ll see whether central control is established, and I’ll make one more little prediction: a key player in resolving (if possible) the Blair/Panetta squabble will be inside the White House, but it’s not the President, or Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, or National Security Advisor Jim Jones.  It’s Jones’s deputy John Brennan, who just worked with Jones to centralize the competing White House Homeland Security Council under the NSC.

Will Brennan now take on something similar for intelligence, and in doing so exercise control over Panetta and Blair, two men whose jobs he reportedly wanted for himself?  Will he be able – or allowed – to do so? To do so could require actual tinkering with the authorities and roles among the biggest of the IC’s 16 agencies – something Brennan has been itching to take on.  And if so, what will be the impact on intelligence community policies and budgets, and ultimate performance?  Stay tuned.

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