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Spies resist plan to shift power

The director of national intelligence would get more authority, and CIA officials abroad might have to bow to others.

May 31, 2008|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A Bush administration plan to issue new orders realigning the chain of command over U.S. spy services has triggered turf-related skirmishes across the intelligence community.

The changes could erode the CIA's standing as the nation's lead spy service abroad by requiring agency station chiefs in certain countries to cede authority to officials from other U.S. spy agencies, officials said.

The revisions would also give the nation's intelligence chief greater power over individual spy services that traditionally have been dominated by the Department of Defense, including the National Security Agency, officials said.

The proposals have met stiff resistance from the CIA and other agencies still settling into roles that were dramatically redefined by legislation four years ago.

The latest revisions are designed to bolster the authority of the director of national intelligence, a position created after the Sept. 11 attacks to compel better cooperation within the often fractious intelligence community.

Officials described the pending changes on condition of anonymity because they are not final. White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said a review process to update rules was in progress.

Some U.S. intelligence officials have warned that the changes could create confusion over who is in charge of running spy operations and managing the United States' relationships with foreign intelligence services.

"The DNI was created to give strategic guidance to the whole intelligence community, not micromanage the day-to-day activities of its members," said a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the negotiations over the changes. "You don't want to have an even weaker community than existed before."

The revisions represent a sweeping overhaul of an executive order first issued by President Reagan in 1981, a document that defined the roles of U.S. spy agencies and placed limits on their activities -- including a ban on assassinations.

Drafts of the rewritten order -- known in intelligence circles by its number, 12333 -- have been circulating among top intelligence officials in recent weeks, prompting last-minute lobbying efforts by affected agencies.

A spokesman for Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell declined to comment on the revised order but said it was expected to be completed in mid-June.

The most controversial component of the new order would reshape the roles of the CIA's station chiefs, the agency's top representatives in other countries.

Station chiefs have traditionally operated with significant autonomy, serving as the main intelligence advisors to U.S. ambassadors, controlling clandestine operations in their countries, and acting as the main point of contact for foreign intelligence services.

Under the proposed plan, the station chiefs would remain in position but could be required to cede some of their authority to officials from other agencies, including the NSA or the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"There will always be a station chief," said a second U.S. intelligence official familiar with the proposal. But the director of national intelligence "may choose a different representative."

The CIA has resisted the move, with CIA Director Michael V. Hayden saying in recent interviews that a realignment could create confusion in locations where swift decisions are often required and foreign governments want a trusted point of contact.

Other officials have warned that the idea might lead to interference, or jeopardize secrecy.

If the order is approved, officials from different agencies "would have the ability to turn off or make decisions about the CIA's in-country activities," said a former U.S. intelligence official who has seen drafts of the document. That other official "would also have visibility into sensitive CIA operations. It's kind of a slippery slope."

But officials from other agencies have argued that CIA operatives are not always best suited to serve as the main U.S. intelligence representatives, particularly in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where there is a major U.S. military presence and mission.

The overhaul of the executive order was launched last year to update the document, which was drafted before the director of national intelligence position existed and doesn't mention newer intelligence agencies.

But it was also meant to fix perceived flaws in the intelligence overhaul of 2004, which many experts believe did not grant the director enough power to run an often divided collection of spy agencies.

The director "is able to move minor amounts of money and small amounts of personnel," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official. But the director can't unilaterally hire or fire senior agency officials or redraw their budgets. "That's real power," Lowenthal said. "The moon will be made of green cheese before we see that happen."

The revised order enhances the director's authorities in these areas, officials said, but still prevents the director from making most major changes without the consent of the secretary of Defense or another Cabinet-level official.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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