Grip on the Obama Administration
and the Intelligence Community
by: Melvin A. Goodman | June 8, 2010
President Barack Obama's appointment of retired Gen. James
Clapper as the director of national intelligence (DNI) demonstrates
the Pentagon's enormous influence over the president and
indicates that there is little likelihood of genuine reform
of the hidebound intelligence community. Once again, the
president has appointed a general officer to an important
strategic position that should be in the hands of an experienced
civilian who understands the need for change. President
Obama has given retired generals the key positions of national
security adviser, ambassadors to Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia
and DNI (on two occasions in a 17-month period) to career
military officers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is
about to name a retired general who was responsible for
special operations in Afghanistan as the State Department's
coordinator for counterterrorism. These career military
officers are not known for strategic thinking, having been
trained to focus on worst-case assessments of geopolitical
problems. It is no wonder that there have few diplomatic
successes during the Obama administration, that the State
Department remains underused and without influence and that
the humongous Pentagon budget remains largely untouchable.
In the political panic that followed the 9/11 attacks,
the Bush administration permitted the creation of two large
bureaucratic entities - the Department of Homeland Security
and the office of national intelligence - that have been
largely sclerotic and demonstrated genuine incompetence
during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the attempted suicide
bombing of a commercial airliner in 2009, respectively.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration has convinced the
mainstream media that Clapper's predecessor, retired Adm.
Dennis Blair, was forced to resign because of the pathetic
performance of the intelligence community in December 2009
when the young Nigerian bomber was permitted to board a
commercial airline and the Central Intelligence Agency demonstrated
incredible incompetence in a series of events that led to
the successful bombing of its most important operational
base in Afghanistan.
In fact, Blair cannot be blamed for these intelligence
failures. The CIA, the National Counterterrorism Center
(NCTC), the National Security Agency (NSA) and the State
Department were all at fault for the attempted suicide bombing.
The State Department ignored the Nigerian's multiple-entry
visa for the United States, the State Department and the
CIA ignored warnings from the Nigerian's father; the NSA
didn't exploit collection opportunities that would have
provided significant information and NCTC failed to pursue
information that would have placed the Nigerian on a no-fly
list. The NCTC should have had operational control of counterterrorism
operations, but the 2004 statute that created Blair's position
specifically states that the NCTC director "may not
direct the execution of counterterrorism operations."
President Obama's principal adviser on counterterrorism,
John Brennan, should have taken this problem to Congress,
where it needs to be corrected; he still hasn't done so.
None of the numerous human errors that were made could be
placed at Blair's door; no one has been held accountable
or even responsible.
Blair's major problem was one he shares with many general
and flag officers who lack experience in Washington but
are placed in sensitive political positions for which they
are not prepared. As a result, Blair created unnecessary
battles within the intelligence community that he was destined
to lose, particularly the effort to control the appointment
of chiefs in CIA stations that are located in US embassies
around the world. Station chiefs have always been CIA operations
officers and it simply made no sense to raise the possibility
of placing NSA officers or Defense Intelligence Agency officers
as station chiefs. Blair lost that battle, but that did
not stop him from trying to halt all clandestine operations
in France, which would have weakened the CIA's counterterrorism
mission and placed the CIA too close to a French intelligence
operation that has been penetrated by foreign intelligence
over the years. Blair also never established a personal
rapport with President Obama, despite his regular visits
to the White House to conduct intelligence briefings. Military
officers typically lack the background and experience to
provide these largely geopolitical briefings, which should
be given by intelligence professionals.
If President Obama were truly interested in intelligence
reform, he would have abolished the office of national intelligence
and the position of intelligence czar or at least placed
the DNI in civilian hands to counter the Pentagon's control
of intelligence personnel and intelligence spending. The
Pentagon already controls nearly 85 percent of the $70 billion
intelligence budget and nearly 90 percent of the 100,000
intelligence personnel. Active duty and retired general
officers now command nearly all of the major institutions
of the intelligence community, although my 18 years on the
faculty of the National War College confirmed my impression
that military officers are not distinguished in the fields
of strategic intelligence or geopolitical problem solving.
Strategic management of the 16 agencies of the intelligence
community is the DNI's major challenge, but the last three
intelligence czars have been unqualified general and flag
officers. The absence of an independent civilian to counter
the power of military intelligence threatens civilian control
of the decision to use military power and makes it more
likely that intelligence will be tailored to suit the purposes
of the Pentagon. The president's erratic decision making
on Afghanistan over the past year points to military domination
of the decision making process.
Finally, the mainstream media, particularly The New York
Times, has demonstrated an ability to accept briefing guidance
from the White House on the Clapper appointment and an inability
to scrutinize Obama's actions. Saturday's New York Times,
for example, cited Clapper's "decades of experience"
without mentioning that his experience in communications
intelligence and military spy operations is not relevant
to his major missions as intelligence czar. The Times credited
the president with "pushing the reset button"
in order to "recalibrate the intelligence structure,"
when Clapper's appointment really amounts to new wine in
old bottles. The Times also discussed Clapper's ability
to refashion and reorganize the intelligence community,
without noting that the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense
for intelligence has veto power over the ability of the
DNI to transfer personnel or budgetary authority from individual
intelligence agencies into joint centers or other agencies
in order to integrate strategic intelligence.
Clapper is familiar with this problem even if the mainstream
media isn't; he served as undersecretary for intelligence
for both Secretaries of Defense Gates and Donald Rumsfeld.
At that time, moreover, he was responsible for managing
the Counterintelligence Field Activities Office, which managed
an illegal database that included information about antiwar
protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting
halls. Perhaps, some of these issues will be raised at his
Senate confirmation hearings.
© 2010 truthout