The CIA has decisively won a long-running turf fight with the director of national intelligence, the CIA’s ostensible boss, over who will be the top U.S. intelligence representatives in foreign countries, NEWSWEEK has learned. According to a White House ruling, in every country where U.S. intelligence agencies operate, the CIA’s station chief will continue to be the most senior U.S. intelligence officer, intelligence officials told NEWSWEEK.
The ruling represents a big victory for CIA Director Leon Panetta and a setback for the national-intelligence czar, retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair. Blair had argued in high-level meetings for months that as the nation’s intelligence overlord, he should have the power, in special circumstances, to name an officer from an agency other than the CIA as his “DNI representative” in countries where U.S. intelligence officers are stationed. That would theoretically make such a person superior to the local CIA chief. The issue was presented for resolution several weeks ago to Vice President Joe Biden.
An intelligence official familiar with the issue, who asked for anonymity when discussing a sensitive matter, indicated there was no equivocation in the way the Obama administration finally resolved the dispute, which had been simmering since the Bush administration. “The White House has made its decision,” the official said. “The bottom line is that CIA station chiefs will also—without exception—be the DNI’s representatives in embassies overseas. That arrangement—consistent from one American Embassy to the next—precludes any confusion over who speaks for U.S. intelligence abroad. Our ambassadors know, and our partners know. They have a single point of contact. It’s a clear, logical outcome.” A spokesperson for the CIA had no immediate comment, and spokespeople for Blair and the White House could not be reached for comment.
The argument over who should be the top U.S. intelligence representative in a foreign country has its roots in post-9/11 intelligence-reform legislation, through which Congress created the office of national intelligence director to ensure that historically competitive agencies such as the CIA, the FBI, and the ultrasecretive NSA shared rather than hoarded their most valuable secrets. Investigations by Congress and the 9/11 Commission established that the CIA and other agencies had fumbled clues about the 9/11 hijackers that, theoretically, could have helped foil the attacks.
Traditionally, the CIA station chief has always been considered the senior U.S. intelligence official in countries where U.S. spy agencies have a presence. But Congress gave the national intelligence director power to supervise the CIA’s relationships with foreign intelligence agencies. Armed with this ambiguous mandate, Blair’s predecessor as intelligence czar, Mike McConnell, started pushing for authority to name, in rare cases, an official of another U.S. spy agency as senior U.S. intelligence representative in a particular country. But career CIA officers, and particularly officials of the National Clandestine Service, the undercover spy branch whose officers have historically headed the agency’s foreign outposts, bristled at the notion that their authority overseas could in some cases be overshadowed by someone from a rival agency.
The Bush administration’s last CIA director, Michael Hayden, argued strongly that CIA station chiefs should remain paramount everywhere they operated. When the Bush administration failed to resolve the dispute, it spilled over into the Obama administration, pitting the new intelligence czar, Blair, against the new CIA director, Panetta. When these two couldn’t reach an amicable settlement, the issue was sent for resolution to national-security adviser Jim Jones. When Jones was apparently unable to broker a solution, the matter was referred to Biden. As Newsweek reported last month (and Time magazine reported last week), at a meeting several weeks ago Biden indicated that the status quo should remain—that CIA station chiefs should always be the top U.S. spies overseas. However, until now indications were that Blair was hoping somehow to reverse this decision, or at least carve out room for exceptions. One consolation for the intelligence czar: CIA station chiefs will be encouraged to bill themselves as “DNI representatives,” a title they’ve nominally held, along with their station-chief designation, since 2005 after the intelligence czar’s office opened for business.