The Return of the Grown-Ups

The graybeards of spycraft are smiling: After two years of turnover and uncertainty in the top ranks of the U.S. intelligence establishment, which saw such outsiders as a former congressman and a career ambassador elevated to high posts, four of their own are now in control or soon will be.

In what one former official called “the closest thing to an intelligence coup d’etat,” a set of old hands has been designated to lead at the principal military and civilian agencies. Career intelligence officials seemed to breathe a sigh of relief this past week and were hopeful that new management would help stabilize the spy agencies, which have been hurt by flawed analyses on Iraq, bureaucratic infighting, and a lack of experienced senior leadership.

In this new intelligence constellation, there are four key players, each of whom has led a major agency at least once. On January 5, President Bush nominated retired Navy Vice Adm. Mike McConnell, a former director of the National Security Agency, to be the second director of national intelligence. It falls to him as DNI to continue post-9/11 intelligence reforms and to act as a chief operating officer for the government’s 16 intelligence agencies.

Next is new Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has his hands on 80 percent of the intelligence budget and so has the most muscle to flex. A former CIA director, Gates will bring a keen understanding of civilian intelligence operations to his job.

Days before McConnell’s nomination was announced, Gates asked retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, a deeply experienced uniformed intelligence officer, to take over the top spy job in the Pentagon, the undersecretary for intelligence. Clapper will replace a controversial civilian political appointee, Stephen Cambone, who was a close ally of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and had little career intelligence experience.

Clapper has held two top jobs, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which analyzes satellite and aerial imagery and data.

McConnell, Gates, and Clapper also have a friend in recently installed CIA Director Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general who rounds out the new team. Hayden, who has been busy beefing up the CIA’s human spying efforts, appointed a career clandestine officer as his No. 2. Hayden is professionally close to McConnell and Gates, and several former officials said that he and Clapper are “old friends.”

“Here you have very trusted players who have been around each other for a long period of time,” said Fred Burton, a former special agent for counter-terrorism in the State Department who’s now the vice president of counter-terrorism and corporate security for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm. Those relationships, perhaps more than anything else, bode well for their chances of success, Burton said.

While McConnell was leading the NSA in the early 1990s, Clapper was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Gates was head of the CIA. Hayden held key positions on the National Security Council and in military intelligence, and he took over the NSA in 1999. Also, when McConnell was the military official in charge of intelligence for Operation Desert Storm, Clapper was the assistant chief of staff for Air Force intelligence and played a leading role in coordinating the air war.

It is unclear precisely who was behind the return of so many veterans. Vice President Cheney, who was Defense secretary during Desert Storm and worked with McConnell, is reported to have personally asked the retired admiral to leave a lucrative position at Booz Allen Hamilton, a major intelligence contractor, to return to government. Some have speculated that Cheney has recruited McConnell to back the administration’s Iraq and Iran policies on Capitol Hill.

But others described McConnell as a nonpolitical professional, and said that Gates’s hand is more evident in the recent shake-up. He is known to have a good working relationship with McConnell, with whom he’ll have to craft the next intelligence budget.

In choosing Clapper as his undersecretary for intelligence, Gates picked a military officer who ran counter to Rumsfeld and Cambone when he recommended putting the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency under the DNI’s control. Now Clapper is coming back in Cambone’s old job.

Assessing that move, as well as McConnell’s return and Hayden’s efforts, many intelligence veterans see an about-face by the administration. “This is the revenge of the intelligence professionals, to take the job of running the intelligence community away from the ideologues and to put it back in the hands of those who probably are best suited to run the place,” said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian.

The new power structure comes at a time when the intelligence community needs steady hands, observers said. Outgoing DNI John Negroponte, a career ambassador who is returning to his roots at the State Department as Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, never seemed comfortable in his role as intelligence czar.

Several former officials noted that Negroponte had a powerful title but showed little inclination to challenge the entrenched forces of the CIA director or the Defense secretary. The DNI’s chief job, in addition to briefing the president every morning, is largely managerial and takes an enormous amount of time and personal energy.

Negroponte rarely showed himself to be interested in or suited to such tasks, observers said, and he was often spotted at Washington’s University Club on workday afternoons, swimming laps in the pool or getting a massage.

But to his credit, some said, Negroponte has assembled a staff of more than 1,500 people who have made progress on intelligence reforms. The DNI’s office has developed new personnel and training requirements, and is tackling standards for information-sharing and new technology projects.

“There is a structure that Ambassador Negroponte has put together that can be used” to continue reforms, said Tim Sample, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a contractors association, and a former staff director of the House Intelligence Committee.

Sample said that McConnell “really does understand the complexities of the community” and will embrace the managerial aspects.

McConnell has seen the intelligence world from two important sides — the government’s and a contractor’s. The intelligence community’s use of — and in some cases, dependence on — outside help is growing fast. Booz Allen has been a principal beneficiary of increased intelligence and security spending since 9/11. Among senior intelligence officials, McConnell has a rare depth of public- and private-sector experience that could be useful now.

But Aid, the intelligence historian, cautioned that McConnell’s 10-year-long absence from government is not necessarily a plus. He left the NSA as the agency was searching for a post-Cold War mission. Under McConnell’s watch, the NSA “got fat, bloated, bureaucratic, failed to adapt to the challenges,” Aid said.

McConnell was loath to oppose budget cuts and didn’t push to intercept communications on the Internet and through other emerging technologies, Aid added. Still, others are hopeful that if McConnell can now take up less sexy, but necessary, management tasks, it will free the others to focus on pure intelligence work.

Both Hayden and Clapper have experience taking over agencies in turbulent times. Under Hayden’s watch, the NSA began the painful transition from a Cold War eavesdropping organization capturing signals from satellites to one that monitors fiber-optic networks, cellphones, and the Internet. The results have been decidedly mixed, but Hayden was praised for his foresight.

For his part, Clapper took over the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency when it was struggling to keep pace with technological advancements in satellite photography and mapping, and to stay relevant and useful in wartime. Under his guidance, the agency began buying satellite imagery from the commercial sector and moved into a new homeland-security role, providing support for special events like the Super Bowl and political conventions.

“He came in at a very critical point to really establish the agency as a credible force in military intelligence and geospatial intelligence,” said a former senior defense official who worked with Clapper.

The personal affinity between Hayden and Clapper may help repair relations between the CIA and the Pentagon, which were severely strained in the run-up to the Iraq war when Rumsfeld set up an intelligence unit to challenge the CIA’s assessments of Iraq’s suspected weapons programs.

Some have questioned how much this new intelligence team can accomplish in the Bush administration’s final two years. It’s not much time to make major reforms, and the Democratic Congress is likely to keep officials busy with oversight hearings and investigations into prewar intelligence.

Experience is by no means a guarantee of success, and there will be plenty of opportunities for strong personalities to clash. One retired national security official who knows McConnell said, “He is not a particularly good team player unless he is in charge.”

But as the agencies recover from high-level turnover and a series of miscast leaders, many said they’re taking comfort in the familiar. As a former CIA official put it, echoing the sentiments of colleagues, “This is the intelligence professionals retaking the ground.”

Published in National Journal