Welcome to Part 2 of my 6-part series, The Intelligence Community: Smart People Looking at Computers. Last week, we learned about “essential” and “non-essential” employees and how secure we must be because we have so many intelligence agencies. This week, we’re discussing the Director of National Intelligence, who is super important (on paper).
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Missed Part 1 of the series? Read it here.
The Intelligence Community:
Smart People Looking at Computers
Director of National Intelligence
A few years ago, people in the Intelligence Community failed to connect the dots. I’m not sure why they were playing connect the dots when they should have been paying attention to intelligence reports about terrorists wanting to kill us, but as the narrative goes, they really struggled to find number 99 and see the picture of the plane.
It’s an unfair narrative, in my opinion, but I will leave that for the historians to decide. In any case, that was the narrative that stuck because it was really expedient. The “intelligence failures” that led to the September 11 attacks and allowed us to invade the wrong country as a response were considered “systemic failures,” which allowed us to place blame everywhere and nowhere at once. When you can blame the system, no one has to feel bad about their individual role. It’s really convenient.
It also means you can fix it. If there’s a weakness in the system, rather than individuals making some awful decisions, people can change the system to ensure it won’t happen again. If something is the fault of individuals and bad decisions, that’s scary because there’s no effective way to counter it. Any system will always have some idiots.
So in 2004, lots of people in Washington set out to fix the intelligence system. They determined that there were too many agencies in the Intelligence Community (IC) that weren’t communicating well with each other. There were just so many agencies, and no one knew the others existed and so there was no communication between them, because when you have too many agencies it’s a lot of work to talk to them all. So people in Washington found the only logical solution: Create another agency. And thus was born the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).
The role of the DNI is to coordinate cross-agency cooperation and to cooperate with cross-agency coordination and to de-conflict through cooperation and coordination across all government agencies associated with coordinating all cooperation regarding the national security of the United States. Or something like that. Ask anyone at the DNI and they’ll tell you their mission is “still evolving.” But basically, the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act placed all sixteen agencies that had even the most tangential intelligence role under a new layer of bureaucracy in the name of efficiency and never forgetting and never letting such a systemic failure happen again. Twelve years and at least five new terrorist groups later, I think it’s fair to say: Success!
If the IC were a school, the DNI would be the uncool principal. He has to make sure all the kids play nicely together and to break up turf wars, like when the FBI wants to play basketball and the CIA is like, we were here first, and the FBI is like, this basketball court is in the United States, we own it! And the CIA is like, “Haven’t you seen Homeland? We do all kinds of shit in this country!” And the FBI is like, “In real life Carrie Mathison would never be able to run around chasing terrorists in this country. That’s our job!” And the CIA is like, “Hey, the show has its flaws but it’s a compelling story!” And then the DNI would make them both write an essay about how they could better coordinate in the future.
The DNI, however, has no authority over any of those agencies. He only has authority over his own staff. So if the math teacher (NSA) and history teacher (State Department) start fighting, he can’t fire either of them. The DNI does have authority over some IC centers, though, like the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which in turn has no authority over anyone who actually does counterterrorism. But they can recommend someone do something, and they all have multiple computer monitors, so they must be important.
The building that houses NCTC was created by Disney Imagineers. I’m not making that up. When I toured the place, this fact really excited the people who worked there and they mentioned it over and over again, especially when anyone asked, “What exactly do you do here that isn’t already done elsewhere?” It was a good way to change the subject, like jiggling a shiny object in front of a baby. “How is this not totally redundant?” “Look at our fancy urinals, designed by Disney Imagineers! Piss in it and it turns magically into a happy fountain that plays It’s a Small World!”
As I said, the DNI oversees but has no real authority over sixteen different agencies. They each have their own personality and foibles. Let’s take a look…
Up next: The Department of Homeland Security
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