President Obama made a surprise lunchtime visit May 29 to a Five Guys
hamburger joint in Washington D.C., where he bought cheeseburgers for
himself and for NBC anchor Brian Williams, who was filming a "day in the
life" program at the White House.
While waiting for his burgers, the president chatted up a fellow named
Walter, with whom Mr. Obama had this exchange:
Obama: What do you do, Walter?
Walter: I work at NGA, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency.
Obama: Outstanding. How long you been doing that?
Walter: About six years.
Obama: You like it?
Walter: I do, keeps me…
Obama: So explain to me what this National Geospatial…uh
Walter: We, uh, work with satellite imagery.
The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) is, after the National
Security Agency (NSA) and the CIA, America's most important intelligence
agency. It's hard to imagine a daily presidential intelligence briefing
that doesn't include at least some slides from the NGA.
When Ben Smith reported the conversation in his column in the Webzine
Politico, it set off a firestorm of comments.
"I teach an undergrad course on National Security," wrote Frederick.
"Any student who has passed my course knows exactly what the NGA is and
what they do. It is frightening that our president apparently has no
If President Obama is as ignorant of the Intelligence Community as this
anecdote suggests, he'll be a poor referee of the turf war that has
broken out between his Director of National Intelligence and the CIA.
A turf war was inevitable once Congress created the post of DNI who
is supposed to coordinate the activities of all 16 U.S. intelligence
agencies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Before the reorganization,
that was the responsibility of the CIA director, who was also the
Director of Central Intelligence.
During the Bush administration, his two DNIs assumed control over joint
intelligence analysis centers, such as the National Counterterrorism
Center (NCTC), where data from various agencies are analyzed.
The Bush DNIs also took from the CIA director responsibility for liaison
with friendly foreign intelligence services.
As a result, the Central Intelligence Agency is no longer "central."
Most technical intelligence is gathered by NSA and NGA, and is analyzed
in the joint centers. That leaves the CIA responsible, chiefly, for the
gathering of human intelligence.
Now, according to a report May 23 by Pamela Hess of the Associated
Press, Mr. Obama's DNI, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, wants to impinge
Admiral Blair, Ms. Hess wrote, wants "to choose his own representatives
at U.S. embassies instead of relying only on CIA station chiefs."
This is a potentially mortal blow to the CIA, and Ms. Hess' sources
"former and current CIA officials" are up in arms about it. The
Blair plan, they told her, risked "creating competing chains of command
inside U.S. embassies and potentially fouling up intelligence
operations. They also worry it could complicate the delicate
relationships between U.S. and foreign intelligence services, and leave
ambassadors confused about where to turn for intelligence advice."
But "Ishmael Jones," a former CIA operations officer, told the
Atlantic's Marc Ambinder: "Anything that can be done to break up the
CIA's station chief system will lead to greater safety for Americans and
"The station chief's contribution to intelligence is weak," Mr. Jones
said. "We don't have them at all in key target countries like North
Korea and Iran, because station chiefs exist within embassies and we
don't have embassies in those places. In countries like Russia and
China which have aggressive spy services, the CIA station chief is
almost confined within the embassy, a figurehead."
I think the CIA's system for gathering human intelligence desperately
needs reform. But I doubt creating a duplicate chain of command within
our embassies is the way to bring it about.