Intelligence challenges await Obama

By Lee Hamilton
Dec 26 2008

 The incoming director of National Intelligence and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency were the last two major national security officials nominated by President-elect Barack Obama. Do not let that mislead you; they are two of the most crucial posts in the U.S. government.


The importance of quality and timely intelligence cannot be overstated. The DNI and DCIA's advice to the president is a principal source of information regarding national security matters.

A smooth, mutually respectful relationship between the president and the major figures in the intelligence community — the DNI, DCIA and secretary of defense — is vital to the success of American foreign policy. The president must have confidence in these individuals; confidence that they will be forceful and responsive in meeting the commander in chief's priorities, confidence that they can work cooperatively in managing the vast intelligence bureaucracy, but also confidence that they will call things as they see them, and be willing to deliver unwelcome information even if it complicates policy objectives.

Good management matters in the intelligence business. The director of National Intelligence must have broad authority over the intelligence, including personnel and the budget. But nothing is self-executing in government. Bureaucratic culture and habits are difficult things to change. Only an aggressive DNI with complete and active presidential support can make the system work.

The intelligence community also requires robust oversight to function properly. Within the executive branch, the president's Intelligence Advisory Board — if properly directed, informed and used — can be of considerable value.

But it is outside the executive branch where the most rigorous oversight of the intelligence community must take place. Congress is the only source of independent advice on intelligence matters. Therefore, the president should welcome the House and Senate intelligence committees' oversight efforts.

Such oversight requires changes in the structure of congressional committees, specifically the creation of powerful oversight committees. Today, the appropriations committees' monopoly on the provision of funding weakens the ability of the intelligence authorization committees to perform oversight and wastes much of their expertise.

There are two other major priorities for the intelligence community in the coming years.

The first is civil liberties and respect for the rule of law. Because we recently have had such contentious debates over domestic surveillance and disturbing intelligence activities (torture, waterboarding, extralegal rendition and warrantless wiretapping), the new administration must restore the public's confidence in the intelligence community's adherence to the law and Constitution. The president should reconstitute and re-invigorate the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to aggressively protect the civil liberties of all Americans.

The second priority is improving human intelligence capabilities. Human intelligence (spying) cannot be strengthened unless the United States makes a strong effort to recruit a diverse work force. It should be obvious, for example, that the chances of a white male penetrating a jihadist-terrorist cell are not good.

A significant barrier is the cumbersome security clearance process, which can take over a year. It poses major obstacles to candidates who have spent significant time overseas or have strong ties to foreign countries. Simply put, the better you know a critical language, culture, or people, the less likely you are to get a security clearance.

The changes in world politics over the past 60 years demand agile, flexible, effective and responsible intelligence agencies. It will require sustained presidential and congressional efforts, in partnership with the intelligence community, to achieve these goals.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)