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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?
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”