05/25/2010 10:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Saving the DNI from Extinction

Before any prospective nominee for DNI agrees to take the job, he or she should get a firm commitment from the President to provide the political backing for budget and personnel authority lacking in the legislative charter. The President must also then make that clear to the Secretary of Defense, the head of CIA, the FBI Director, the head of NSA/Cybercommand, and other intelligence heads. Securing this strong Presidential backing is more important than seeking legislative changes to the DNI's charter, if only because it is more achievable.

When the Democrats on the House Intelligence committee introduced legislation in January of 2003 to create a DNI, the concept was to make the position a kind of "combatant commander" who would bring greater unity of effort to the intelligence mission. This does not mean pulling in or replicating all elements of the IC within the Office of the DNI. Nor does it mean eliminating the distinct cultures of these various entities. Rather, it means getting the 16 different elements of the community to work effectively together, maximizing the unique strengths and capabilities of each, to accomplish the mission. The most important aspect of this is ensuring that national priorities take precedence over agency priorities.

By the time the final bill emerged from the legislative process in November of 2004, the position had been considerably weakened. Nevertheless, it is my sense that the powers of the DNI are adequate if accompanied by strong Presidential support.

The two key areas where the DNI lacks adequate statutory authority are budget and personnel. The President cannot entirely remedy the budget gap because it involves the role of Congressional committees. However, the President can go a long way toward enhancing the DNI's budget authority by informing the various agencies and departments that he will ask the OMB Director to work with DNI in preparing the recommendations for the President's budget. Similarly, the White House ultimately controls personnel decisions. The President should make it clear that no senior intelligence positions will be filled without DNI approval.

Critics also complain about the size of the DNI, which is significantly greater than originally envisioned by Congress. The answer is to right-size the DNI's mission. The DNI should do only those tasks that cannot be performed by the individual agencies. Get rid of all the extra missions dumped on by the agencies and layered on by Congress. Then reduce the size of the staff commensurately.

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence committee reportedly favor Leon Panetta for DNI. Although Panetta is unlikely to favor this option, he may be a good choice to take on this position that otherwise hovers on the edge of extinction. While at CIA, Panetta has had strong backing in the White House. This makes him a formidable competitor for any DNI, as Director Blair discovered. Having Panetta at CIA makes the DNI job unenviable. Moving Panetta to the ODNI instantly raises the credibility and heft of that position because he brings that power with him and simultaneously removes it from the CIA.

Panetta also brings important budget expertise. There are two key aspects to budget authority. The one that gets the most attention is over how the budget for intelligence is built. The DNI's role is to ensure that the budgets of the 16 intelligence agencies reflect the President's priorities, as developed and communicated by the National Security Council. Leon's experience as head of OMB will help him understand how to leverage the power of OMB, backed by the commitment of the President, to achieve that mission.

The second, and equally important, aspect of budget authority is the ability to influence how the money is being spent during the year. The DNI should work to achieve as near to real-time transparency as possible into budget execution by the various intelligence entities at the program level. This will give the DNI situational awareness of how intelligence assets are deployed and how well all of the program and activities are fulfilling their missions. This will also allow far more agile, efficient, and effective use existing reprogramming authority, which can be a powerful budget tool when properly deployed.

General Clapper is reportedly the current choice of the White House. He has long been a proponent of a strong DNI, which has not endeared him to many in the Department of Defense. Clapper understands the role of the DNI and, most importantly, the appropriate role of the various intelligence entities within the Department of Defense. Clapper's downside is that he has been preceded by a string of military men as DNI at a time of growing concerns about the militarization of intelligence.

The significant downside to moving Panetta over to ODNI is that CIA will lose someone who has, by most accounts, been an effective and well-liked leader. It would be important to find a new director for CIA who can work well with Panetta and inspire confidence among the men and women who labor at Langley and across the globe. It may be time to reach for an insider--or perhaps a former insider.