It’s Not Where the Buck Stops on Terror

There’s a better defense against terrorism than having the president take the blame; it’s all about sharing information.

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The critics are beating a straw man when they try to blame the most recent terrorist attack on President Obama. The failure to stop the so-called “underwear bomber” was a failure to share intelligence, and it is rooted in ego and power. Just this past November, the Washington Post and other news outlets reported that the age-old, Cold War-style turf battles still raged between CIA Chief Leon Panetta and the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

The two got into a tussle when Blair issued a directive declaring he had the power to select non-CIA personnel as his eyes and ears in certain countries. Panetta reportedly fired off a notice to the CIA workforce telling them to disregard Blair's message.

I’m not surprised. When I was practicing law, I represented clients who served the government in two areas: information sharing and solutions to better protect corporations and the government against cyber-security threats. Even after 9/11, I saw these turf battles first-hand. The reason they develop is all about power, access and who gets to report directly to the president.

The director of national intelligence post was created four years ago to coordinate the efforts of 16 intelligence agencies in the U.S. government. The CIA, with a 60-year-old history, has long been the leader in foreign intelligence and traditionally prepared the president’s daily briefing, the overnight intelligence report that goes to the president each morning. Blair took over doing the briefings, giving him daily access to the chief executive, and some at the CIA apparently saw that as a demotion.

Congress can be helpful in resolving these disputes because it holds the purse strings. This past summer, the Senate Intelligence Committee lined up squarely behind the director of national intelligence, saying in the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010, "the committee supports the [director of national intelligence] in that choice (as lead coordinating intelligence agency) and looks forward to the CIA's prompt adherence to his decision."

However, the brouhaha continued. The CIA took its complaints to the National Security Council. Vice President Joe Biden and the National Security Council weighed in on the side of Panetta and the CIA. Finally, National Security Adviser James Jones had to step in to settle the dispute.

But while he may have negotiated a truce, he didn’t resolve their incapacity to work together. The problem of sharing information is not new. Intelligence agencies have always been sensitive about letting the other guy know what they know. President John F. Kennedy faced this same kind of drama when the CIA got him into the Bay of Pigs fiasco early in his presidency.

President Obama must demand that the director of national intelligence and the top honchos at the CIA stop fighting each other and focus on the real war against terror. He must demand that they work with the FBI, the NSA and the alphabet soup of other intelligence agencies to implement stringent new steps that will ensure that there is candid information sharing—classified and unclassified. This sharing is the only way to connect the dots of information gathered by the various intelligence and defense agencies. And the president must make it clear that the jobs of these agency heads are on the line if it does not happen.

Unless these turf battles end and the director of national intelligence’s power to coordinate intelligence is acknowledged by all, our national security will be seriously undermined and we’ll soon be talking about another failure to connect the dots and about whether the president will take responsibility.

Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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