WASHINGTON (CNN) -- CIA vs. DNI -- the clash of the titans.
Dennis Blair, left, was picked to be director of national intelligence and Leon Panetta to head the CIA.
In the old world, the CIA director ruled. He not only ran the spy agency, but he wore a second hat as director of Central Intelligence.
The DCI was ostensibly responsible for coordinating the activities of all 16 agencies and departments which make up the intelligence community.
Then came along the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) in 2005 -- a product of intelligence reform following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Those intelligence failures were proof that you needed one person to focus exclusively on guiding the community.
Running the CIA in itself was a full-time job. The DNI would oversee the entire intelligence community while the CIA director concentrated on running the spy agency.
But there's a problem with this setup. Although the DNI was given more input into budgets and personnel than the DCI had, the DNI's powers are limited and somewhat vague. The intelligence chief has a say in lots of things, but there's no real muscle behind his decisions. It's not like the defense secretary, who has absolute authority over all department components.
Outgoing CIA Director Mike Hayden recently told reporters there is natural tension between the CIA and DNI, but it's "not a bad structure."
He did suggest, however, that the DNI's office was getting a bit bloated. "Americans being Americans, they're going to fill up their day trying to doing something impactful," he said, "which means between the two of us there's going to be a trench line ... out there."
And how did departing DNI Mike McConnell respond to Hayden's quip?
"Anytime you have organizations that have similar interests, you're going to have disputes," he said. "And particularly if the two leaders aren't working together and having a partnership and so on, the warfare at the trench level gets to be pretty much a raging battle."
McConnell said he had a good professional relationship with Hayden, so they made it work. But he added, "we don't have a department of intelligence. If this were the Department of Defense, there wouldn't be any question, but it isn't."
CIA nominee Leon Panetta got into the middle of the dispute during his confirmation hearing.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, wanted to know Panetta's understanding of the relationship between the CIA and the DNI. Would he be under the supervision of the DNI?
Initially, Panetta said he reported to the DNI and performed the tasks assigned to him by the DNI, but then he added: "we are an operational arm, just like the [National Security Agency], just like the [National Reconnaissance Office], and I believe the role of the DNI is to coordinate all our activities..."
Well, the NSA and the NRO are part of the Defense Department and report directly to the Defense Secretary, not the DNI. The CIA is the only intelligence agency that is not part of another department.
A bit baffled by Panetta's response, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, asked him point blank, "Is the DNI your boss or not?" Panetta's answer, "The DNI is my boss."
It makes you wonder how Panetta and the other new guy -- DNI Dennis Blair -- will play in the sand box.