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Why a DNI? Why an ODNI?

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Why a DNI? Why an ODNI?

Richard Best

Recent news accounts have alluded to concerns about the role of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Office of the DNI (ODNI).  Many in the public could not identify the separate roles and missions of the DNI and the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and wonder why the separate positions exist.  Some, more knowledgeable, find evidence of bureaucratic redundancy and duplication of effort and suggest the abolition of both the DNI position and the ODNI. In reality, however, the separate positions exist for thoroughly justifiable reasons and should be maintained, subject to a bottom-up review of current functioning that should occur at the beginning of any new Administration.

The current organizational arrangement was set in place by 2004 legislation as a direct response to shortcomings revealed in the 9/11 attacks.  Although proposals for the creation of DNI date back to the 1950’s, the failure to gather more information about al-Qaeda in the U.S. in 2000-2001 derived from inadequate resources devoted to international terrorism and from an inability to “connect the dots” that were available. In large measure, this failure resulted not from incompetence on the part of analysts, but from an organizational structure designed to separate the collection of intelligence on foreign developments from evidence that could be used in court.  The “wall” between the CIA and other agencies (NSA, DIA, etc.) on one hand and law enforcement agencies (principally the FBI) on the other was primarily created and monitored to ensure the protection of civil liberties by careful adherence to procedures established by Congress and the courts; to prevent the emergence of an American Gestapo employing covert surveillance against U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, however, the emergence of international terrorism and the information revolution played havoc with neat bureaucratic divisions.  Al Qaeda operatives in this country (legally in some cases), communicated regularly with associates abroad and were not identified and tracked out of fear of engaging in unlawful domestic surveillance.  The 9/11 Commission concluded that a wholesale reorganization of the Intelligence Community was needed.  No one wanted to obliterate the distinctions between foreign intelligence and law enforcement, but it was judged necessary to ensure coordinated collection and the sharing of collected information under adequate rules and guidelines. One person had to be made responsible to make sure that this occurred. That person would be the DNI.  The CIA Director would be separate and would continue to have heavy responsibilities for human intelligence, conducting, at the direction of the President, covert actions, as well as a full range of analysis on a global scale.  No longer would the CIA Director be involved in validating the budgets of agencies in other Cabinet departments and setting priority lists that other agencies had to meet.

Since the establishment of the ODNI in 2005 there have been inevitable instances of bureaucratic infighting, duplication of effort, and layers of coordination.  There may have also been an over-utilization of costly contractors. It has to be remembered, however, that the ODNI includes the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in which analysts from all agencies are brought together to focus collection and analysis efforts on this key concern. Even if the ODNI is dissolved, the NCTC and other ODNI offices will have to be relocated until the terrorist threat abates. For most Americans, the dangers of future terrorist or cyber attacks on the U.S. amply justify in-depth, even redundant, coverage.  Civil liberties need to be respected, but another 9/11  is essential. Subject only to the President (and Congress), the DNI is the person responsible. Without a DNI, responsibilities would again be diffuse.

The DNI and the ODNI have legitimate work to be done and a major effort to rewire the Intelligence Community is not now called for. More urgent is a persistent focus on international terrorism even when it attracts adherents in the United States and sophisticated collection and better analysis of the capabilities and intentions of foreign states especially Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. The ever-expanding threat of cyber attacks has also become a critical intelligence mission.  In all these areas, the DNI and ODNI are key players in a government-wide effort to direct finite resources and to inform military commanders and national policymakers.

About the Author(s)

Richard A. Best has served as an analyst in the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress.  The opinions expressed in this article are strictly his own.