The White House this month issued a classified order to resolve mounting frictions between the nation’s intelligence director and the CIA over issues including how the agency conducts covert operations, U.S. officials said.
The intervention reflects simmering tension between the two most powerful players in the U.S. intelligence community: Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair and CIA Director Leon E. Panetta.
The memo maintains the CIA’s status as the nation’s lead spy service on covert missions, rejecting an attempt by Blair to assert more control. But the document also includes language detailing the agency’s obligation to work closely with Blair on sensitive operations.
The two sides have sparred in recent months over the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, officials said, with Blair voicing frustration that the agency had given too little attention to supporting U.S. efforts to strengthen the existing government in Afghanistan and reduce the power of Taliban insurgents.
In meetings, Blair had pushed an effort “to turn the CIA around,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the discussions. In particular, Blair has prodded the agency to curtail support to discredited warlords who may help in the hunt for Al Qaeda but contribute to corruption in Kabul.
Senior lawmakers and U.S. military officials also have voiced concern that the CIA’s mission is too narrow.
“Right now, the CIA is focused on the counter-terrorism-only mission,” said Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Unless the CIA does more to help stabilize local provinces, “all the work they do hunting bad guys is for naught when the Taliban can come in at dark and wipe out anybody” trying to help the U.S.
CIA officials disagree with the characterization of the agency’s work.
“The CIA does more in Afghanistan than counter-terrorism, though that priority is decisive to the success of everything else,” said a U.S. intelligence official who, like others interviewed, requested anonymity when discussing sensitive operations. The agency understands “that our government needs to know about a host of other issues, from narcotics flows and corruption to local perceptions of the United States.”
The White House memo, signed by National Security Advisor James L. Jones, was an attempt to settle a collection of disputes that have plagued the relationship between the director of national intelligence and the CIA director for years.
The White House sided with the CIA on one of the thorniest issues -- who would select the top U.S. spy representatives to countries overseas. The Jones memo establishes that the prestigious posts always will be held by the CIA, rejecting Blair’s request to be free to choose representatives from other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Blair also sought a place in the chain of command on covert action -- activities that include paramilitary operations and Predator drone strikes in Pakistan. But Panetta fought to preserve the CIA’s direct line to the White House, a relationship the agency considers crucial to its unique status in the spy community.
U.S. officials said the disputes became so heated that Blair refused to sign an agreement brokered by the White House last month. Panetta, pleased with the document, signed almost immediately.
Blair’s protest forced Jones to issue the new memo. A U.S. official familiar with the document said it keeps “a direct chain of communication” between the White House and the CIA on covert action but that Blair is to be “kept informed of covert actions and, as the president’s principal foreign intelligence advisor, can be asked to provide his views on them.”
CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said Panetta believes the White House memo “brings much-needed clarity to intelligence roles and responsibilities.”
Gimigliano said Panetta had instructed the agency to “move forward” with the office of the director of national intelligence “as one team.”