Sensitive CIA operations overseas will face new scrutiny from the nation’s intelligence director under a plan approved by the White House and outlined in a memo to the espionage workforce last week.
The move marks an attempt by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair to assert greater authority over clandestine operations at a time of mounting bureaucratic frictions between the CIA and Blair’s office.
Among the activities that could be evaluated are the CIA’s campaign of Predator missile strikes against militant targets in Pakistan, as well as secret paramilitary and spying operations in other countries.
In a memo to subordinates Friday, Blair cited new guidance from the White House that his responsibilities “include assessment and evaluation of the effectiveness of sensitive operations.” The majority of those, he said, “are conducted by the CIA.”
But in a sign of ongoing skirmishing in the intelligence community, other officials dismissed Blair’s memo and said the CIA’s covert-action authorities remain intact.
“Covert action is ordered by the president and carried out by the CIA,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That relationship, which involves a single, direct line of command and communication between the White House and the agency, isn’t changing.”
Indeed, officials said Blair had sought to change the chain of command, putting his office more directly in charge of clandestine operations, but the White House rejected the proposal. As a fallback, officials said, Blair was asserting the right to review CIA missions.
Blair’s memo appeared to be in response to news last week that he had lost a long-running bureaucratic battle with CIA Director Leon E. Panetta over who has the authority to pick the top U.S. spy representative in other countries.
After months of wrangling, and the intervention of Vice President Joe Biden, the White House opted to preserve an arrangement in which those overseas positions are all held by CIA officers.
In his memo, Blair contended that media reports about the decision were “incomplete and in places incorrect,” even while acknowledging that the White House had ruled in the CIA’s favor.
The CIA has come under severe criticism, including by President Obama, for operations in recent years including its network of secret prisons and the use of waterboarding and other controversial interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.
Oversight by the director of national intelligence could help ensure that CIA activities are effective and serving U.S. interests, said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. “The potential problem is if it’s done heavy-handed, and [Blair] starts using this as a way to run operations,” he said. “Then you’re going to just have another food fight, and the DNI is probably going to lose.”
Others were more critical of Blair’s plan. A congressional official briefed on the matter said it risks “getting into the weeds when the DNI should be looking at over-arching management issues.”
The DNI was created five years ago as part of an intelligence reform effort to do away with an arrangement in which the CIA director was responsible for coordinating all of the nation’s spy services while managing the agency’s own operations.
“It seems like the DNI is getting involved in the same things that led the [CIA director] to lose focus,” said the congressional official, who was not authorized to speak officially on the matter. “He wants to be the intelligence briefer, wants to go to all the meetings, wants to run chiefs of station and wants to manage covert action.”