Al-Qaida’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the first successful surprise attacks against our country since Imperial Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor. This national tragedy understandably provoked extensive investigation and self-examination with the goal of improving our government’s ability to prevent future attacks.
One of the most tangible symbols of post-9/11 government reform, the new position of director of national intelligence, recently marked its 10th anniversary.
The DNI position was the centerpiece of landmark legislation enacted in 2004, informed by the findings and recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Ten years of experience offers an opportunity to take stock and ask whether the government is smarter and the country safer as a result of these changes.
There have been several celebrated, and many less visible, intelligence successes during the past decade. The U.S. military, our intelligence agencies and an informal alliance of foreign security services deserve credit for degrading al-Qaida’s core leadership and preventing more catastrophic attacks on American soil. These successes resulted largely from initiatives taken by our intelligence agencies immediately after the 9/11 attacks.
Legislative reform, however, was not universally welcomed in our tradition-bound intelligence community, and the 2004 law’s implementation has been fitful. Because of the speed with which the law was debated and passed, a prolonged debate ensued about whether the new director of national intelligence’s charge was to unify and direct, to integrate, or merely to coordinate the work of America’s (now) 17 intelligence agencies.
Although final judgment about the impact of the post-9/11 intelligence reforms may be premature, there are several observations and tentative conclusions one can make.
First, the DNI is not the intelligence community’s “quarterback” envisioned by some of the post’s early boosters. He does not plan and execute sensitive operations. Rather, the position has provided strategic direction and exploited a natural “convening authority” to bring the community’s disparate agencies together to confront shared challenges.
Second, the director of national intelligence’s authority to determine the intelligence budget is his greatest source of power, but the limits of that power have not been tested. For most years since 9/11, intelligence budgets were rising and therefore fewer trade-offs and hard choices were required. If intelligence budgets continue to decline, the DNI may be forced to make more, and more controversial, choices.
Third, the DNI is emerging as the voice of U.S. intelligence in talking to the American public and Congress. James Clapper, the current Director, stepped forward to explain why surveillance programs were needed and how they would be changing in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures. Congress has already engaged the DNI to assess whether commitments made by Iran under a nuclear agreement being negotiated can be effectively verified.
Finally, the 2004 law established the National Counterterrorism Center. This new center, housed within the DNI’s office, plays a crucial role merging terror threat information from all sources.
These observations illustrate both the promise and the limitations of the position. It is neither as dominant as some early supporters had hoped nor as disruptive as its detractors warned.
Presidents have unique influence over the size, shape and activities of the intelligence community. If the next president demands that our intelligence agencies work together under the DNI’s leadership, we can expect continued incremental improvement.
The gains made, and lessons learned, during the past decade provide a solid foundation for progress toward the intelligence enterprise our country needs and deserves.
We are slowly getting smarter about a world that is rapidly becoming less safe for America, its citizens and our national interests.
Stephen Slick is the director of the Intelligence Studies Project at The University of Texas at Austin. Michael Allen is managing director at Beacon Global Strategies and the former majority staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
The essay’s text was approved by the CIA’s Publication Review Board.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Foreign Policy.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
Like us on Facebook.