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Director of national intelligence has little real authority

Former National Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair is said to have lost a power struggle with the CIA director.
Former National Director of Intelligence Dennis Blair is said to have lost a power struggle with the CIA director.
  • Just-vacated position has responsibility but little clout
  • Job was created on recommendation of 9/11 Commission
  • CIA director answers to DNI on paper, but not in practice
  • Previous DNIs were John Negroponte and Mike McConnell

(CNN) -- President Obama soon will nominate a new director of national intelligence, a position originally envisioned as overseer of the entire U.S. intelligence community.

Dennis Blair, a retired Navy admiral, resigned as Obama's intelligence director Thursday.

In the days before his resignation, Blair had responded to a Senate committee report's criticism by saying that "institutional and technological barriers remain that prevent seamless sharing of information" among the 16 agencies he oversaw.

And that's the problem, a former White House homeland security adviser said Friday.

Fran Townsend, a CNN contributor who was a homeland security adviser during the Bush administration, said the director's position lacks the authority to match its responsibilities.

"They either have to fix it or do away with it, but one way or another, what we don't need it to be is just an added layer of bureaucracy that impedes progress, especially when we have such serious threats out there," Townsend said on CNN's "American Morning."

Congress created the position in 2004 as part of an intelligence overhaul recommended by the 9/11 Commission.

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John Negroponte, ambassador to Iraq, became the first director in April 2005 and held the position until February 2007, when he became deputy secretary of state.

J. Mike McConnell, a retired Navy vice admiral, succeeded Negroponte and served until a week after President Obama's inauguration, when Blair took over.

According its website, "the Office of the DNI's goal is to effectively integrate foreign, military and domestic intelligence in defense of the homeland and of United States interests abroad."

However, the legislation that created the post did not invest it with authority to direct the budgets of any of the 16 intelligence agencies or tell them what to do.

Before the director position was created, the director of central intelligence called most of the shots, and CIA directors have continued to wield considerable power, generating tension with the DNI.

Time: Position not well defined or well rewarded

"Anytime you have organizations that have similar interests, you're going to have disputes," McConnell said on his way out the door. "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 then-CIA director Mike Hayden, so they made it work. But, he said, "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."

Blair's resignation is said to be the result of a power struggle with CIA director Leon Panetta. But even Panetta seemed unclear on the intelligence hierarchy during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2009.

Initially, Panetta said he reported to the DNI and performed the tasks assigned to him by the DNI, but then he said: "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."

In fact, 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.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, asked him directly, "Is the DNI your boss or not?"

"The DNI is my boss," Panetta answered.

CNN National Security Producer Pam Benson and writer Jim Kavanagh contributed to this report.