WASHINGTON – Despite seemingly rapid-fire confirmations for White House officials these days, one so far is noticeably missing — that of the new director of national intelligence (search).
Congress approved the position of a director of national intelligence as part of the Intelligence Reform and Prevention Act (search) signed into law in December. President Bush had pushed for the position and lawmakers say they are surprised the president hasn't named a nominee yet.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, ranking Democrat of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that "it is unacceptable" that a director of national intelligence hasn't been named yet, especially after Congress wrangled for three months to find a compromise to create the position.
According to the law, Bush has until June 17 to pick a DNI. Reports early this month suggested Bush could make his selection soon and indicated that former Navy secretary John Lehman (search), a Republican member of the Sept. 11 commission that first suggested the new office of national intelligence, was being strongly considered by the White House.
Both skeptics and hopefuls say whoever wins the new director spot has more than a few challenges ahead — from turf battles at the major intelligence and national security agencies to bureaucratic resistance and the ultimate test of wielding the authority needed to transform the nation’s intelligence capabilities.
"He’s going to have to be a skull-cracker, that’ll make the difference," said Amy Zegart (search), a professor of public policy at UCLA, former student of now-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and award-winning author of "Flawed By Design: The Evolution of the CIA, JCS and NSC."
"It’s equally possible, it will be a disaster," Zegart said.
Intelligence analysts say the appointee must be someone who is willing to take charge decisively.
"It will have to be a strong person who will demand respect to get things done," said Thomas Carroll, a former officer in the CIA’s clandestine service, who now runs Carroll Associates (search) in California.
Turf Wars Ahead
When it came to the creation of the director position, Bush took the unusual path of disagreeing with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who did not like the idea of ceding military intelligence authority to an outside office. The intelligence reform bill allows the new director authority over the national intelligence budget, but not the approximately 30 percent of the budget that falls under the Pentagon’s purview. In that case, the director will participate in drafting the budget, but will have not final say in it. As for the rest of the budget, the director will have control, but requests to reprogram funds will have to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget (search).
Zegart said the role of the DNI is a far cry from the initial blueprint envisioned by the Sept. 11 commission and embraced by a lobby of family members of victims of the attacks.
"The reality is that in any legislation, it is all about interpretation and loopholes and this legislation is vague enough that the Defense Department will have a major say," said Zegart. "It’s a long way from where we started."
Others are more confident that the right person will be able to advance the goals set out in the new statute: to serve as the coordinator of 15 intelligence agencies, corralling them all to help streamline, share and disseminate information, and to report to the president directly.
Amy Spanbauer, spokeswoman for Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the congressman is confident Congress gave the national intelligence director the authority necessary to make a difference.
"[Gibbons’] No. 1 goal was that the intelligence director would receive budgetary controls," Spanbauer said. "He will continue to monitor the progress so far, but he believes it’s a good step forward."
On paper, the DNI will exceed the stature of the CIA director, currently Porter Goss (search), in that he will be the president’s principal point person for intelligence, though the new appointee will have no control over covert or field-level operations.
And while recent reports indicate that the CIA is already butting heads with the FBI over domestic intelligence-gathering territory, it was revealed in January that the Pentagon has already launched its own military spy teams overseas, free of congressional oversight. The scenarios present a power struggle well in play while the new director post sits empty.
"The longer you wait, the worse it gets," said Zegart. "Right now there is a vacuum. It is basically a race to see who can get the most power the fastest."
As a cautionary tale, the Department of Homeland Security, which is tasked with helping coordinate intelligence, was never able to realize its potential strength, say experts familiar with DHS. The creation of the new national intelligence director was a big hit to that agency’s struggling authority, they say.
With DHS now facing an identity crisis, a new level of bureaucracy has been created, said Chuck Pena, director of national defense studies at the Cato Institute (search).
"We need to find better ways to communicate and share, which means changing a culture that is now ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share.’ These agencies still have systems that can’t talk to each other," he said. "How does having a national director change any of that? The answer is it doesn’t because the problems are at the lower level."
Carroll agreed. "The risk here is a bigger bureaucracy, yet another layer of rules and regulations and challenges standing between the person in the field gathering the information and the president’s ability to use it," he said. "We’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope it works."
Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told FOXNews.com he is confident that the president will appoint someone who can fill the slot effectively. But no one said it would be easy.
"The enormous statutory authority given to the intelligence director notwithstanding, that person would be well served to be versed in diplomacy and diplomatic maneuvering," he said.