Monday, December 1, 2008

Who's missing from national security team?

President-elect Obama is set at long last to announce his national security team formally, but if all the reports are to be believed, there will be a big hole in the line-up along with some arguably odd additions. The announcements will include those of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Robert Gates to continue as Secretary of Defense, and General James Jones to take on the pivotal role of National Security Advisor in the White House.

Until a few days ago, this top-level team was widely expected to include another experienced, well-regarded hand to lead the nation's intelligence community as Director of National Intelligence and, possibly, a new Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, too. After John Brennan, a career CIA analyst and advisor to Obama on intelligence issues took himself out of consideration suddenly, speculation centered on Admiral Dennis Blair (Ret.). Now, it seems that in a few hours, Obama will introduce the group without naming anyone to the critical intelligence posts.

This may be because Brennan's departure threw previous plans off, and Obama feels under pressure to make the announcement anyway, given the big, drawn-out buildup and the vicious Thanksgiving weekend terror attacks in Mumbai.

Nonetheless, it's a bit like a basketball team missing a point guard. Since 9/11, it's become universally accepted that the quality of our intelligence agencies is an indispensable component of a successful national security policy. In fact, the Office of the DNI was created by Congress in response to a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to centralize the IC's leadership in the hands of a single high-level official who could deal with other agency heads as equals and report only to the President.

It's unfortunate but very likely that the failure to include the designation of Obama's choice for DNI will be interpreted in some quarters as a downgrading of the position or even as a slight to the intelligence community. Compounding the problem, Obama will be announcing his picks for Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security as part of his national security team. Of course, both officials have important national security roles, along with their wider law enforcement responsibilities, but hardly more important than those of the DNI and CIA Director.

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