Monday, January 03, 2011
Joe Mazzafro

New Years is always a good time for top ten stories so I thought I would go this way for the January edition of Mazz-INT. I quickly realized, however, there is little new I that could add to stories such as Wikileaks, the failed jihadist bomb attacks, intelligence issues in Afghanistan, budgetary pressures on the IC, or the swap out of Clapper for Blair as DNI that would pique this readership’s interest. 

Scanning the current headlines I suppose I could pile on about the need for better counter-intelligence (CI) and security practices in the face PFC Bradley Manning’s unsupervised broad access to sensitive unfinished intelligence given his personal history, but to what point? 

Then there is the Diane Sawyer interview with John Brennan, Janet Napolitano, and Jim Clapper, where DNI Clapper is unfortunately unaware of the arrest in London of 12 terrorist because he was in a closed Senate hearing regarding START Treaty details.   Here’s a real softball for beating up on information sharing or the effectiveness of the DNI position, which I rejected because it is such an overworked softball.   While the optics from this interview are disconcerting, I don’t believe they are accurate.  Jim Clapper is neither clueless nor uniformed; moreover, I believe he is the person most likely to dramatically improve information sharing and establish the prestige the DNI position has been lacking.

The Diane Sawyer Interview did get me thinking though about who is the most influential person in the Intelligence Community (IC) today, which is what I would like to explore with you here. 

Influence in the IC has many sources:  statutory, organizational, budget size, White House access, personal alliances, ability to use the media, and reputation to name the obvious ones. All are difficult to instrument or measure so my take on who wields the most influence in the IC as the calendar rolls over to 2011 will be anecdotal and subjective.

 From the enactment of the National Security Act in 1947 until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 few will dispute that the Director Central Intelligence (DCI), who was also the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was the first amongst equals in the IC.  Beyond being the statutory titular head of the IC, the DCI’s influence and power emanated from his regular access to the President through the President’s Daily [Intelligence] Briefing (PDB) prepared by the CIA and the DCI’s National Security Act directed observer status on the National Security Council (NSC).  President Clinton’s first DCI James Woolsey famously resigned over his lack of access to the Oval Office because of the President’s disinterest in intelligence, but there was little controversy over whether DCI Woolsey was the de facto and de jure leader of the IC.

As the IC grappled during the rest of the 1990’s with defining and understanding post Cold War threats to the security of the United States, while trying to preserve capability in the face of paying a 20% peace dividend, the role of the DCI became less and less “central” to the White House, the Congress and the rest of the IC.  In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the flawed National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the commissions that investigated these events validated what most in government, academia, the media and the electorate had already come to believe: that the IC lacked the strong institutional leadership position needed to bring focus, discipline and unity of mission to the 16 members of the IC.  This resulted in Congress passing the purposely ambiguous Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act (IRTPA) that established the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) position in 2005 after the Department of Defense (DoD), where 80% of the IC resides, moved quickly in the aftermath of 9/11 to consolidate its intelligence function in 2003 under the control the new position of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence (USDI).

These events resulted in the dicing of the DCI’s legacy influence over the IC into rolling thirds between the Director of CIA, USD (I) and the DNI depending on the subject and the personality.  The inauguration of President Obama has added his trusted Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter Terrorism John Brennan to any discussion about who is the most influential person in the IC today, especially while the USD (I) position is currently vacant.

With due deference to SSCI Chair Senator Diane Fienstein and ISAF J2 Major General Mike Flynn,  who amongst John Brennan, Leon Panetta, and Jim Clapper is the most influential person in the IC today?  All have considerable positional authority, inestimable reputations, and are experienced in both the ways of the IC and Washington   -------- suggesting to me that they create an unexpected but very real force equilibrium at the upper echelon of the IC that insures none of them have a dominating influence over or across the IC.

Of course, such a state of equilibrium at the top creates the conditions where other leaders in the IC can bring to bear uncommon influence on the intelligence affairs of the nation.  On a day-to-day basis at both at the national policy level and at the grass roots of intelligence practices, I see Keith Alexander actually being the most influential person in the IC, at least for the time being.  Here’s why:

Ø  In terms of number of people and size of budget NSA is the largest single agency in the IC

Ø  NSA has the most technically qualified work force in the IC

Ø  NSA’s Research and Development budget is capable of influencing the direction of the Information Technology (IT) industry

Ø  As the largest employer in the state of Maryland, what happens to NSA impacts the election of two senators, several Congressmen, and the state’s governor

Ø  General Alexander is the only active four star military officer currently serving in the IC

Ø  NSA is one of three combat support agencies in DoD

Ø  As the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, General Alexander is the only member of the IC with Combatant Commander (CC) authorities

Ø  Signals Intelligence is the “industrial INT” needed by all elements of the government involved with national security for the near real time detection of adversary activity and discerning their intentions

Ø  NSA’s Central Security Agency (CSA) is responsible for safeguarding DoD and IC signals information as well establishing capabilities, standards and best practices for secure IT operations for the IC

Ø  NSA is the nation’s most capable organization for exploiting, disrupting or defeating the rapidly increasing foreign cyber threats to US national security.

Most impressive though to me is the adroit way General Alexander has accrued and balanced all of his various responsibilities, authorities, functions and capabilities to improve the national security of the U.S., while making himself and NSA more valuable to the rest of the IC.

I do not doubt that a case can be made that other IC agency directors wield influence equal to that Keith Alexander, or that I have under estimated the influence of John Brennan, Leon Panetta and Jim Clapper on the IC, but remember I said I was going to look at this anecdotally and subjectively.  The real telling point is that there is no obvious answer as to who is the most influential person in the IC today, which leads to the more important question of whether the IC can be more effective with divided influence or strong director.

That’s what I think; what do think?

Share Your Thoughts:

I agree with your assessment and would add that at every staff and command level, Keith has imaginatively, yet modestly, optimized the contributions of his position and resources to the mission(s) at hand. He is both a highly effective leader and a team player. The nation is fortunate to have a man of Keith's stature and capability at the helm charting the actions, processes, authorities and relationships needed in the dawn of the cyber age.


Thanks! General Alexander is certainly the right person in the right place at the right time. You caught an important nuance that I was trying to convey that team work is a way of achieving greater influence joemaz

In the cold war era, HUMINT premiered over SIGINT and ELINT in the arena of intelligence gathering and significance. Thus, the CIA (along with its director) had the most influence in the IC. But now, cyber space (which I categorize as the new ELINT) dominates todays territory and activities. NSA has always excelled in ELINT gathering (whether old or new), and stands heads and shoulders above all others in this field. Thus, DIRNSA has taken the lead, and rightfully so, as NSA intelligence has always been clean and reliable.

Great observation Lynn. I would also note that the "Central" in CIA tells what the expectation was of the framers of the National Security Act joemaz

Great blog and post. Just a small spelling error I noticed. CI (Counterintelligence), is not hyphenated.

You missed Admiral Philip Bergen and Abdul Rashid. Happy New Year!

Gen Alexander asked me to tell you, "your hired". Also, Director Clapper owes you a cocktail for your kind assessment.

Did you mean Central Security Service (CSS) rather than Central Security Agency (CSA) in the bullet list about NSA?

Joe, I would agree with your assessment of General Alexander. However, I would caveat the initial question - with those who are visible. The IC has many influential people who are not publicly visible but who have impact by influencing those who are publicly visible. A historical example would be the role of Frantisek Palacky in Czech Nationalism.
I would also place Gen. Alexander at the top because of the cyber mission. However, I would say cyber is more than just ELINT; SIGINT is better. Cyber can be seen as an evolution within SIGINT because cyber cross all the subgroups within SIGINT. For example, the thought processes of SIGINT/COMINT traffic analysis are useful in cyber; i.e. logical data modeling.

Yes I did mean CSS not CSA thanks!

Mark, I agree cyber is more than SIGINT (COMINT, ELINT, Telemetry) but you got my basic point that NSA's SIGINT experience makes the best suited organization in the government for understanding the cyber environment