- - Monday, March 23, 2020

In response to recent complaints by former intelligence officials like James Clapper, John Brennan and others about President Trump’s current effort to reduce the bloat and politicization of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), it’s time to admit something they do not want to discuss: America does not need a director of national intelligence. 

Members of Congress who drafted the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) which created the DNI post were convinced that a centralized director of the intelligence community could prevent another 9/11 by ensuring that intelligence agencies share vital information and improve intelligence management.  

Congress created the ODNI because proponents took advantage of a crisis — the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks — to push through a bad idea that never would have been adopted in normal circumstances. Lawmakers knew the American people were demanding bold action in response to the terrorist attacks and were sold on the idea that creating a DNI represented such bold action and would be a panacea for the intelligence community’s shortcomings. Most did not understand — or ignored — warnings that creating a DNI likely would lead to a huge bureaucracy that would damage, not improve, American intelligence capabilities.  

Not all members of Congress favored creating the ODNI. A notable exception was former House Intelligence Committee member Ray LaHood, Illinois Republican, who said in 2004, “I believe creating a national intelligence director is a huge mistake. … it’s another bureaucracy, it’s another layer of government. It would not have prevented 9/11 and it will not prevent another 9/11.”

Sixteen years later, Mr. LaHood was proved right: The record is clear that creating the ODNI has made America less safe.

Centralization of the intelligence community forced a surge in groupthink and risk-averse analysis. According to a 2016 Heritage Foundation report, since the creation of the DNI position, intellectual and bureaucratic decay resulted in a series of intelligence failures, including failing to predict the Arab Spring, the resurgence of al Qaeda, the adventurism of Vladimir Putin, the aggressiveness of China, and a number of terrorist attacks on the United States, from the Detroit “underwear bomber” to the San Bernardino massacre.  

ODNI spending and personnel have surged since 2004. “In classic government agency fashion, the ODNI quickly self-bloated, requesting 1,500 highest-salaried Senior Executive Service (SES) billets and becoming a promotions playground for the Intelligence Community,” former Assistant FBI Director Ken Brock wrote recently in The Hill. “For comparison purposes, the FBI, 20 times larger, has 200 to 300 SES positions with, one could argue, much clearer return on investment.”

Mr. Trump has long been skeptical of the ODNI as a wasteful and out-of-control bureaucracy. His concerns grew over the past three years after repeated inept and politicized activity by intelligence community officers.

These included DNI Dan Coats’ unclassified congressional testimony last year undermining the president’s diplomacy with North Korea, the discredited January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, politically driven leaks by intelligence officers, and the so-called CIA whistleblower whose actions sparked the impeachment proceedings against President Trump. This whistleblower now reportedly works for the ODNI.

Mr. Trump’s recent decisions to name loyalist hardliners Ambassador Richard Grenell as acting DNI and to nominate Congressman John Ratcliffe to be the DNI reflect how serious his concerns are about the DNI. Mr. Grenell has hit the ground running to streamline the ODNI by firing several key officials, instituting a hiring freeze, and assessing the size of the staff and how to eliminate duplication of work with other agencies.

While Mr. Trump cannot eliminate the DNI position on his own, he can drastically limit its mandate and start treating the CIA director as his principal intelligence adviser. He also can sharply reduce the ODNI bureaucracy. As many as 2,000 ODNI staff are on detail from other agencies and can be sent back immediately. ODNI bureaucracies can be shut down and folded into other agencies. The National Intelligence Council and the Presidential Daily Brief should be sent back to the CIA.  

To deal with security threats facing our nation, we need a U.S. intelligence community that is nimble, innovative and willing to take risks. Cutting back — if not eliminating — the ODNI and its gargantuan bureaucracy will go a long way toward fixing the damage that this huge, ineffective and politicized leviathan has done to our national security. 

• Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State and the House Intelligence Committee staff. Twitter @fredfleitz.

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