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Analysis: Smart change is slow for U.S. intelligence agencies

By Suzanne Simmons, CNN
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says he focuses more on his behind-the-scenes work than his time on camera.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair says he focuses more on his behind-the-scenes work than his time on camera.
  • It's been five years since creation of director of national intelligence position
  • Some say job comes with lots of responsibility but little authority
  • Former director suggests that reform legislation be revisited
  • Officials agree that intelligence community needs improvement

(CNN) -- There they stood, an unprecedented public gathering of all heads of the American intelligence community. The 16 leaders of the agencies and departments that make up the intelligence community stood at attention behind Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair last week to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the position's formation.

Change doesn't come easily, especially when dealing with the entrenched bureaucracy of the federal government. So it's not surprising that five years after Congress created the job to run the sprawling 16-member community, it is very much a work in progress.

But did this rare appearance in front of TV cameras by a group of people who prefer not being seen reflect the reality of a seamless intelligence community, sharing information and collaborating to keep the nation safe?

The answer might be found in what had the potential to be the worst attack on the U.S. since September 11. The failed attempt to blow up a commercial airliner on Christmas Day exposed many weak points.

At a conference this month on the state of intelligence reform, Blair said December 25 "shows us that yesterday's improvements from 9/11 are not adequate to meet today's problems, much less tomorrow's problems."

Officials have said the problems ran the gamut from information that was hard to access because of outdated database software to faulty visa procedures to the failure of analysts to put together the threads of information and see the coming threat.

Former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin believes that the bombing attempt provides a great opportunity for the intelligence director to help further transform the intelligence community.

"Only the DNI by law can take the steps required in the aftermath to tune up the performance of the community," he said.

That might be easier said than done.

David Shedd, one of the deputy directors of national intelligence, said the reform legislation that created the director position provoked tensions by giving him "department-like responsibilities" but also making it clear that the person "could not abrogate the authorities of any other department head."

In other words, "the DNI, by design, straddles everyone else's turf."

Since only one of the 16 intelligence agencies or offices -- the CIA -- operates independent of a department, the law left the director of national intelligence with limited authority. Other intelligence units are attached to agencies like the Department of Defense. Shedd says the director must rely on personal relationships -- with the president, Congress and his colleagues in the community -- to get the job done.

Former Homeland Security Adviser Frances Fragos Townsend believes that the director's power rests with the president.

"The president must be clear on what it is he wants his DNI to do, what role he wants him to fulfill and how he expects him to execute it," she said.

One of the forces behind intelligence reform, former congressman Lee Hamilton, agrees. He explained that the law is ambiguous and that only the president can resolve the turf battles.

Most of the experts say there is no need or it isn't realistically feasible to pursue another legislative fix for the directorship. However, one person who knows quite a bit about the job doesn't necessarily agree.

Former Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell maintains that the law does need to be revisited. He says that to get things done in a bureaucracy, you need authority, direction and control. That is why he wants to see a tenured director of national intelligence: that is, a director with a fixed term in office, and a Cabinet-rank Department of Intelligence.

"If we don't do it that way, we are going to continue to argue about these issues, and it will be personality dependent," McConnell said.

When asked about his predecessor's comment, Blair was noncommittal.

"I'm kind of pretty busy trying to work with what I have," he said.

Some members of Congress have complained about the size of the director's office.

There are more than 1,800 people under the auspices of the director of national intelligence, but nearly 1,200 of them work for mission support offices such as the National Counterterrorism Center. Shedd believes that those numbers are relatively small for the work that is being done.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-California, does not want to see the director's office become a big bureaucracy. It should be "lean and nimble," she said.

There has also been debate about whether the director of national intelligence should be the primary spokesperson for the intelligence community. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden was critical of the visible absence of Blair after the December 25 bombing attempt. Instead, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan spoke.

It is something that "100,000 people in the intelligence community.. took note of," Hayden observed. The retired general added that "he needs to be and to be seen as the primary legitimate spokesman for what goes well and what goes ill inside the American intelligence community."

Hamilton agreed that the director should be the chief spokesman, not necessarily the only one.

Blair brushed off the criticism, saying he spends less time counting his time on camera than he does focusing on his work behind the scenes.

There are success stories. Hayden said the director of national intelligence shares some of the credit for making Americans safer today. He also called the National Counterterrorism Center, which was created by the intelligence reform legislation, an "unalloyed success story in terms of what it has done to change how we defend the country."

Harman said intelligence products are much better. According to Shedd, the update of the laws governing surveillance of Americans and the focus on cybersecurity would not have been accomplished if not for McConnell's efforts.

But all of the current and former officials attending the Bipartisan Policy Center's intelligence reform conference this month agreed that the community needs to be better.

Thomas Kean, the co-chairman of 9/11 Commission, says that although intelligence sharing among the community has significantly improved, it's not as strong as it should be. Hamilton pointed to the need for improvements in human intelligence and gaps on the analytic side.

Blair said that among his key goals the next five years is to expand the assigning of intelligence agents to spend time at other agencies and to extend sharing of information between the collectors of intelligence and the analysts of it.

Change might turn out to be generational. As Blair and others have maintained, it is the younger intelligence officers who tend to be more imaginative and innovative and to see themselves as players on a team. With more than 50 percent of the intelligence work force having joined government since the 2001 attacks, they could in large part be the answer to how the intelligence community will transform itself into the seamless entity envisioned by the reform legislation.

CNN National Security Producer Pam Benson contributed to this report.