Saturday, June 05, 2010

Jim Clapper and the DOD dilemma

by Rick Francona

President Barack Obama has nominated retired USAF Lieutenant General Jim Clapper to become the next Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Clapper is currently the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, or USD(I). The position of DNI requires Senate approval - several members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have expressed reservations over the appointment of yet another retired military officer to serve as DNI. Of the three persons who have held the relatively new office, two have been retired U.S. Navy admirals.

Before I make some comments, some disclosure. I have known General Clapper for decades, served with him and worked for him in a variety of assignments (and had the occasional run-in...). We have somewhat similar backgrounds, although he served in senior intelligence officer positions in combatant commands while my service was exclusively in what we call "pure" intelligence assignments - that is, units or agencies whose sole mission is to conduct intelligence operations. His experience includes intelligence planning, collection, analysis, reporting, direction, management and command - he certainly has the credentials for the job.

That said, if General Clapper is confirmed, his ascension to the post of DNI will be an interesting drama to watch. Clapper has spent almost his entire intelligence career in Department of Defense (DOD) units and agencies - Air Force signals intelligence units, the National Security Agency, special Defense Department collection units, intelligence directors for three combatant commands, assistant chief of staff of the Air Force for intelligence, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. All that experience made him the logical choice to be the current USD(I).

Most of the intelligence capabilities of the United States reside in Department of Defense. Defense intelligence not only makes up the overwhelming majority of the intelligence community, but it consumes the majority of the $50 billion budget as well. Defense agencies include the National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office and the intelligence branches of the each of the military services. Of the five "pure" intelligence agencies in the community, four fall under the Secretary of Defense.

When the Office of the DNI was created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, it set up the community for conflict between the formerly dominant Central Intelligence Agency and the bulk of the intelligence community that is part of DOD. Although the DNI is supposedly the head of the intelligence community, the position lacks real operational, budgetary and personnel authority - the DNI is supposed to "coordinate" the activities and operations of the 16 agencies that make up the community. Neither then-Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld nor current Secretary Bob Gates seemed inclined to give up control of their majority share of the intelligence community.

Even before the passage of the 2004 legislation, DOD officials knew that changes were on the horizon, based on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to streamline operations of the intelligence community. To make sure that DOD maintained what it considered its rightful control of its intelligence agencies, the position now occupied by General Clapper was created. It was the first salvo in the battle between DOD and the DNI. When the legislation was finally passed, DOD carried the day and retained virtually all of its capabilities, now consolidated under the USD(I)/Director of Defense Intelligence. CIA, whose director also filled the now-abolished position of Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), became just another agency.

The DOD-DNI rivalry is not the only rivalry in the community. CIA sought also to protect its turf as the "senior" agency working directly for the DCI and the President. The creation of the DNI placed one more layer between it and the White House, putting it on a par with the DOD agencies.

Unfortunately, President Obama does not seem to understand that. He tends to treat CIA director Leon Panetta as the DNI, at the expense of current DNI Admiral Dennis Blair. It was probably to be expected - Panetta was a political choice and Democratic Party power broker. Blair, with no real intelligence credentials of his own, has been relegated to the bureaucratic sidelines.

If General Clapper is confirmed - and I hope he is - it will be interesting to see how he approaches the DOD intelligence agencies and the CIA under Leon Panetta. Is he going to allow Panetta to be the President's personal intelligence officer, or will he assert himself as the nation's senior intelligence officer in accordance with what I believe was the intent of the intelligence reform legislation?

General Clapper is a known re-organizer, so beware! Will he remain true to his current stance that there needs to be a Director of Defense Intelligence to represent DOD intelligence capabilities to the DNI, or will he try to bring all U.S. intelligence capabilities under his operational purview (that's where my money is)? Or will he widen the gap between DOD agencies and the CIA? Perhaps he will try to bring CIA under the Defense Department....

As I said, this will be fascinating.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out of the box thinking - U.S. intelligence in Yemen

by Rick Francona

There has been a spotlight on the American intelligence and security agencies in the wake of the failed al-Qa'idah Christmas bombing of a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. A review of procedures and policies is obviously warranted in light of the abject failure of the agencies to prevent 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab from getting on an airliner with a bomb secreted on his body.

However, it is also right to point out some of the things the intelligence community is doing to get it right. There has been reporting over the last few months of a good program, generally overlooked by those of us that follow events in the region or the intelligence community. It has to do with Yemen and former adversaries of the United States.

Shortly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqi intelligence officers loyal to Saddam Husayn sought refuge in Yemen. Yemen's president, 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih, had been a long-time ally and supporter of the Iraqi president. Once the officers arrived, Salih took full advantage of the presence of these professional intelligence officers to improve his services' limited capabilities. In the Arab world, the Iraqis are good intelligence officers, probably second only to the Jordanians.

The Iraqi officers also took advantage of the situation. Having arrived in the country with some but not unlimited resources, the opportunity to practice their craft offered a chance to make a good living. Because of their professionalism compared to that of the Yemeni intelligence officers, they were able to assume prominent and influential positions in the country's intelligence and security services. Most of them have remained in Yemen rather than return to an Iraq where their experience - they did after all play key role in the repression that characterized the Ba'th regime - is neither valued nor desired.

When al-Qa'idah realized that its ability to conduct effective operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia came to an end, it moved many of its operatives and training bases to Yemen. Yemen, a backward country with poor infrastructure, a weak and highly corrupt central government and a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, seemed a perfect place for the terrorist group. It also has a sketchy record when it comes to keeping terrorists in custody. Numerous convicted and alleged terrorists have been released or "escaped" - virtually all of the bombers of the USS Cole are at large in the country, as well as at least one member of the "Lackawanna Six" wanted in the United States.

As American intelligence began to focus on the country, it became apparent that cooperation with the local intelligence and security services was an imperative in the fight against al-Qa'idah. It only made sense to approach the Iraqis working for the Yemeni services and propose a cooperative relationship to deal with the growing al-Qa'idah problem in the country. It is useful to note that several of the Iraqi intelligence officers were familiar with the American intelligence services - they have been involved in the relationship in the 1980's between the Iraqi Intelligence Service and the Directorate of Military Intelligence on one side, and the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency on the other.

While we hurl stones at our intelligence and security agencies, we should also remember to acknowledge that they can think "out of the box" on occasion. This is a good example of a slightly unorthodox means of getting the job done.