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BACK TO THE FUTURE? I DOUBT IT!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Joe Mazzafro

Over Labor Day Weekend I read Vice President Cheney’s personal and political memoir “In My Time” and I happy to report that “my head did not explode” from the “revelations” in this short book.  For the most part this is droll and self-serving quick read, but I was happy for his confirmation that as Vice President he never politicized intelligence for policy reasons.

Elsewhere in Washington, Pennsylvania Avenue “budget bingo” continues as the Congress returned from its Labor Day Recess and the President from his August vacation to a September devoid of a rush at least in the Intelligence Community (IC) to execute what is left of Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 money before the federal government’s version of “New [Fiscal] Year’s Eve” on 30 September.  Perhaps there just isn’t that much year-end money left to execute?

Clairvoyance, however, is not required to predict that these budget doldrums will persist through a Continuing Resolution (CR) at least into the new annual year of 2012.  Like the rest of the federal government, the IC doesn’t know how much money it will have until the Congressional “Super Committee of 12” recommends on 23 November how the government should cover $1.5 trillion in debt reduction as required by the early August Debt Ceiling Deal.  Then on 23 December both houses of Congress have to vote “yes” or “no” on the “Gang of 12’s” proposal.  A no vote by the Congress or a Presidential veto immediately sends the federal budget back to the future of FY 2007 funding levels for at least FY 12 and 13 or longer.  I would “guesstimate” this as a $15 billion or 19% cut for the IC. Ironically a 19% cut could be a good deal as the Super Committee of 12 may well reason that since the IC budget has doubled since 2004 a 20% to 30% reduction of resources represents the IC’s  level of “shared pain” in order to minimize reductions for popular social entitlement programs.

Not surprisingly the IC collectively and by department/agency has been doing “what if” budget drills since August for FY 12.  These drills are probably contemplating reductions on the order of 10%, 20%, and 30% so they can tell the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congressional Committees of Jurisdiction what the impacts are as funding cuts go deeper.  This will be the acid test of whether the Office of the Director for National Intelligence (ODNI) can guide, if not manage, the IC.  Jim Clapper’s predecessors all failed to get the IC to be more “integrated” or collegial with budgets rising.  It will take all of DNI Clapper’s considerable experience, leadership skills, and likeable personality to keep the elements of IC from turning on each other to protect their budgets and programs in this environment. 

Based on no particular information, I am cautiously optimistically though that unless the cuts to the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and Military Intelligence Program (MIP) approach draconian levels of 50%, IC programmatic fratricide will be avoided.  I see five reasons in no particular rank order for why the IC will not turn on itself because of today’s extraordinary budget pressures:

  1. Collectively the IC has adapted its capabilities, processes and cultures to the post 9/11 “new normal” and contributed measurably to preventing for ten years what was viewed as an evitable subsequent terrorist attack on our homeland.  It is in no agency’s or program’s interest to be seen as disrupting or threatening this success
  2. The wearing down of Al Qaeda based on effective ISR over ten years culminating in the 02 May Bin Laden takedown demonstrated to the IC that it is far more  capable as a functioning community than as 17 individual organizations

  3. As all citizens and every federal program are asked to accept a fair share of the deficit reduction pain, IC agencies or programs working to protect themselves are more likely than their collegial peers to be penalized

  4. The National Intelligence Managers (NIMs) are organizationally positioned to show how various IC programs can be more mutually self supporting to the point of mitigating severe cuts in any of these programs individually

  5. DNI Clapper and his team are effective without being threatening and understand that leadership is more important to keeping the IC together than “authorities”

Perhaps as recently as a year ago, but certainly two years ago I would have predicted that the IC would have folded on itself under today’s budgetary pressure and the DNI could have done little but warn the members of the IC “to remain calm, not panic, and stick together.”   While IC programmatic fratricide is a real possibility, the fact that a plausible case can be made for why it is not a probability indicates at least to me that the IC is successfully transitioning from stovepipes to federation towards community and can realistically strive for integration.

That’s what I think; what do you think?

 

Comments

JoeMazz: A well-written and thought-out set of considerations and conclusions. I think that the most important point is your recognition, that I would emphasize, that the DNI and his leadership staff are carefully nourishing throughout the IC a real sense of cooperative engagement, such as has not been evident in the past. A good sign.

By M. Felsher

Murray, thanks I hope I am close to right here, but as you say there are observable behaviors indicating the DNI is on the right track. The irony is that the DNI through leadership will turn over to his successor an ODNI more influencial than the one he took over

joemaz

By joemaz

I'm not so sure I agree with the overarching conclusion that the IC has learned they are better off working together, rather than as individual agencies, especially given the increasing budget pressure you so accurately describe. I wish that as the pressure ratchets up that they would continue to operate based on rational reason rather than emotional response, but history does not support that conclusion. Do we have any real evidence that certain agencies really do believe that they're more effective working collaboratively with the rest of the community? Or do have we seen a willingness to experiment along those lines as long as no serious long-term harm was done to their legal and historical prerogatives. The best indicator of your conclusions holding true is in the personalities now in charge of those agencies, but I'm not at all convinced that their "Iron Majors" will not be able to assert themselves over time and realign those agencies with the historical paths that have proven (to them) to be so successful.
Keith

By Keith Herrington

Keith your skepticsm is well placed and you are right my evidence beyond personalities, organization (NIMS), and extreme budget pressure is circumstantial and thin. What I am sure based on past performance is that if the DNI cannot keep the IC agencies from turning against each other then we can relegate the ODNI construct to being just somewhat more consequential than the PFIAB. If IC agencies battle successfully to protect their budgets/programs in this environment than that means the cut the IC will endure cannot by definition be strategically targeted for what the IC needs most Thanks! joemaz

By joemaz