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Appearances – CNN appearance on national intelligence

Happy New Year to all.  Just before Christmas, I spoke to CNN’s Situation Room about the deeper structural problems behind Director of National Intelligence James Clapper not being up to speed on the latest terrorist arrests in the UK. There’s a pair of soundbites from me and a longer paraphrase of other things I said by the reporter, CNN’s classy Brian Todd, who was a real pleasure to talk to:

 SYDNEY FREEDBERG, MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE WRITER: Clapper is a smart guy in a stupid job.

TODD: Sydney Freedberg, a military and intelligence writer who now heads a research project called Policy at the Sharp End, says the federal government has flowcharted itself into an ineffective intelligence network.

Too many agencies in a tangled weave of responsibilities. The DNI job was created after 9/11 to oversee all those agencies, make sure that dots that were not connected before 9/11 are now. But there’s a reason Clapper is the fourth DNI in five years and why heavy hitters like Robert Gates turned down the job when it was first proposed.

(on camera): How is the DNI hamstrung? Not enough budget power, not enough hiring and firing power?

FREEDBERG: He cannot hire or promote people outside of his own office. He can’t say, OK, the director of the CIA has to be this guy, or the number two at Defense Intelligence Agency has to be this person. So, all of those are independent fiefdoms. Plus, he has very little budget authority.

TODD: Analysts like Freedberg say the intelligence community is still caught up in rivalries and resentments. And when an official at one agency wants to share a tip, they’re not always sure who in another agency to pass it to.

Their computer systems may not connect. As a result, there is plenty of money flowing, but not enough intelligence sharing. In just over a year, U.S. authorities managed to stop Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators in a plot to bomb New York subways. But the Times Square bomber, the Christmas Day airline bomber, and the Fort Hood shooter all slipped through the cracks.


TODD: Freedberg says we don’t have to get rid of the director of the national intelligence. He suggests one solution would be to have that official coordinate what he called intelligence pickup teams on the fly for different threats — Wolf.

BLITZER: How would that work, Brian?

TODD: Well, Freedberg says if there is a domestic threat, you say maybe get the FBI in the room. If there’s a foreign threat, bring in the CIA. If it’s a biological attack threat, get agencies involved that are not even in that intelligence network, like the Centers for Disease Control, and make clear who is in charge of that pickup team for that threat.

They do a little bit of that right now, but they need to get a lot better at it, he says. The culture has to change. The agencies have to be willing to work together, right now, too many turf wars still going on.

The full transcript is available online; no video, I’m afraid. For more on this topic (and the reason CNN called me in the first place), check out the discussion I moderated on National Journal’s expert blog about the ugly ouster of Clapper’s well-regarded predecessor, Dennis Blair.

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