Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Role of the Director of National Intelligence as ‘Head’ of the Intelligence Community
The Role of the Director of National Intelligence as ‘Head’ of the Intelligence Community

The Role of the Director of National Intelligence as ‘Head’ of the Intelligence Community

In recent weeks, there has been controversy over who President Donald Trump would nominate as the next Director of National Intelligence (DNI) after the resignation of Dan Coats. This discussion makes it an appropriate time to ask some questions: How influential is this position? Is it something truly worth being concerned about?

The DNI was supposed to take over leadership of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC), the collection of 16 different U.S. intelligence agencies along with the DNI’s own Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), with the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. The former head of the IC was called the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) and held a dual role as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the IC. The CIA is a more traditional intelligence agency with capabilities in intelligence collection, analysis, and covert operations. ODNI helps the DNI in integration efforts and its other duties and responsibilities (118 Stat. 3665).

Over the years, it has been noted by many that the DNI is quite limited in its ability to manage the entire IC. Indeed, during the Obama administration, there was a public dispute between the CIA and the DNI over the authority to appoint overseas DNI representatives, which may have led to the dismissal of DNI Dennis Blair. While the public might never know the complete extent of the DNI’s actual influence, as the inner workings of the IC remain secret, there are some ways in which the public can look at the DNI’s influence, such as the President’s Daily Brief, the National Intelligence Estimate, interagency disputes, public appearances, and legal authority. When looking at these elements, it appears that the DNI is the more influential position in the White House despite the trouble it sometimes faces.

Influence on Presidential Documents

While the DNI may not appear to have much influence in the drafting of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), it maintains an influential and crucial managerial role. The PDB is a document that the president receives every day that historically has been created by the CIA. For instance, it is rather telling that a CIA analyst, and not an analyst from another agency, is part of the group that gives the briefing to Trump. The specifics about which high-ranking person is present during these briefings does change with each new president, but the content of the PDBs does seem to be mostly CIA products. This makes sense since the ODNI does not have intelligence collection capabilities and instead focuses on helping the DNI direct the IC. The DNI’s role is more managerial. However, the DNI reviews the final product before it reaches the president.

The influence the DNI has in National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) greatly outshines its influence in PDBs. NIEs are larger documents that are authorized by the DNI; they represent the judgment of the entire IC on any topic. Here, the DNI has more control of the created product, which gives the DNI more overall influence in foreign policy. Having such influence over how the NIE is written is extremely important in foreign policy since previous NIEs have been partially declassified, whereas PDBs are largely kept away from the public. Declassified NIEs can significantly alter international opinion on an issue, which can place political pressure on the president to act a certain way, as seen with the 2007 Iran NIE when the People’s Republic of China changed its stance regarding enacting further sanctions on Iran.

Regardless of who actually drafts the material in the NIE, how the NIE is phrased matters significantly. Going back to the 2007 Iran NIE, according to DNI Mike McConnell, the conclusion should have read more along the lines of “the Iranians halted the design of an implosion warhead” and not the published conclusion of “until Fall 2003, Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons.” Whereas Mike McConnell’s conclusion suggested that there were other parts of a nuclear weapons program that Iran was still developing, the published conclusion appeared to significant parts of the media as a strong endorsement that the totality of the nuclear weapons program was cancelled. The immediate response by opponents of the administration to the declassified NIE was to attack the administration for politicizing intelligence. The conclusions also helped end President Bush’s attempts at gaining international support for stronger sanctions on Iran.

Instances of IC infighting are highly dependent on the people involved, and cannot be said to be reflective of the power, or lack thereof, of the DNI. The very notable dispute between DNI Dennis Blair and DCIA Leon Panetta over the authority to select overseas chiefs of station occurred due to Blair’s lack of closeness to President Obama, combined with the always challenging DCIA-DNI relationship. While Obama’s decision to side with the CIA in this dispute did hurt DNI authority, his decision did not necessarily lead to the DNI being unable to fulfill its duty as an integration overseer—these station chiefs have since appeared to recognize the value of integration. In this regard, while the authority of the DNI decreased and the CIA maintained the status quo, the loss did not stop the DNI from promoting a more integrated IC. It should be noted that this instance of in-fighting is not the only one; in 2005-2006, there was controversy surrounding the new DCIA Porter Goss and DNI John Negroponte, which led to Goss’s resignation. Reportedly, Goss’s resignation actually was the result of Negroponte ousting him, with the approval of Bush, over a dispute regarding parts of the CIA becoming part of the ODNI. If this is true, then it would suggest that the outcomes of DNI-DCIA infighting are more dependent on the president at the time taking a side.

Speaking for the Intelligence Community

The fact that the DNI was the public spokesperson in light of the revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s worldwide surveillance programs suggests that despite siding with the CIA over the DNI earlier, the Obama administration still firmly saw the DNI as the leader of the IC. DNI James Clapper evidently had the trust of the administration, which is something that is crucial to having good President-IC relations. While this level of trust may not always be present for all administrations—as Trump has publicly disagreed with Coats over intelligence estimates—it is still significant that the DNI is seen as the leader of the IC and therefore accountable for the IC.

There is no denying the lack of true authority the DNI has on certain matters, like how it can only transfer up to $150 million out of one agency in a fiscal year (Section 4014), or how it can only consult the Secretary of Defense regarding the acquisition of new major systems for military intelligence agencies (118 Stat. 3654). The DNI’s sometimes contradictory and overlapping authorities do weaken its influence relative to the CIA, but it does hold some crucial authorities that ensure its relevance. It maintains useful coordination authority, something the DCIA lacks—the DNI is responsible for developing joint procedures between the CIA and Department of Defense to improve coordination between the two (Section 1013). By being the main coordination authority, the DNI maintains relevance as an authority that keeps the IC well-functioning in the eyes of Congress and possibly in the eyes of IC personnel, if Clapper is to be believed. According to Clapper, integration has become an accepted part of IC work, and IC personnel feel that “the sum is truly bigger than the parts.” Of course, this argument assumes that the individual agencies are working as intended and are functioning well and that Clapper is telling the truth regarding how IC personnel feel about the DNI, which there reason to doubt. Regardless, the DNI is in a better position to close the gaps between the various intelligence agencies.

The DNI, compared to the DCIA, does appear to be the more influential position in Washington. While the DNI does not have important authorities over the operations of IC, it does have an important role as both the symbolic head of the IC and the main integration authority. The DNI’s influence over NIEs is substantial, while the DNI’s lack of influence over the PDB does not necessarily hurt it as much since it maintains a managerial role. Bureaucratic infighting has gone both in favor of the DNI and against it, so there is precedent for the president strengthening and weakening the DNI’s position in the IC. Ultimately, the DNI’s unique position of being the IC manager gives it an importance that cannot be matched by the DCIA. While the DCIA is without a doubt influential, the DNI maintains important authorities and positions that make it the overall more important position when considering the entirety of the U.S. government and how that, in turn, affects the IC.