Washington Babylon — November 13, 2008, 10:45 am

Who Should Obama Name As Intelligence Chief? (And, more importantly, does it matter?)

The Washington Post ran an article yesterday full of breathless speculation about whom Barack Obama would name to head key intelligence agencies. “The nation’s top two intelligence officers expect to be replaced by President-elect Barack Obama early in his administration, according to senior intelligence officials,” the story said. “A number of influential congressional Democrats oppose keeping Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Mike McConnell and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden in their posts because both have publicly supported controversial Bush administration policies on interrogation and telephone surveillance. One Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee said there is a “consensus” view on the matter.”

However, said the story, some Democrats and many intelligence experts “give high marks to the current cadre of intelligence leaders, crediting them with restoring stability and professionalism to a community rocked by multiple scandals in recent years.”

I asked one former senior CIA official about the Post story and he said:

It doesn’t matter who Obama picks as DNI and/or DCI. There’s no way to undo the damage. The “reformed” structure under the DNI is dysfunctional. It didn’t even create an unnecessary layer of management. It just created another layer of sclerotic oversight. In the CIA itself, the culture is broken. Leadership and authority are not thrust upon operators who go to difficult and dangerous places to do significant work. Instead power is in the hands of Washington bound bureaucrats who take advantage of “flex time” to work four day weeks.

One might want to imagine that a leader, empowered by the President, could shake the rot out of the system. That, however, would require draconian organizational and personnel changes that would be unacceptable and even illegal in today’s government. In general, it may be an important public interest to ensure management roles for men and women who won’t accept long separation from their families or long hours that conflict with family duties, but that needs to be abandoned or subordinated to the task of reviving the operational spirit of the Clandestine Service. That’s just not going to happen.

Another former senior intelligence officer offered a similar critique. He said the DNI was created purely to satisfy public opinion in the aftermath of 9/11, and had become “a complete waste of resources” and “a fifth wheel that merely burns fuel and adds no propulsion.”

When the White House asks for a briefing on Iran, for example, the DNI calls in experts to be briefed and then it briefs the White House. You’re just putting an area of inexpertise between the experts and policy makers. The people at the DNI are just talking dogs. But they’ve put in place many procedures that are primarily designed to validate the existence of all the management people.

The DNI needs to disappear. People say don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, but sometime you have to. This will require legislative action and leadership. The Democrats have the political strength but not the leadership.

Either way, the more important question is not “who?” but “how?” How do we fix an intelligence community when the “talking dogs” are in charge?

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More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

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Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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