Steve Slick is a clinical professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and directs the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin. He was a member of CIA’s clandestine service, and served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and the NSC’s Senior Director for Intelligence Programs and Reform. This essay was reviewed and approved by the CIA’s Publications Review Board.
President Trump’s revised executive order on the structure of the National Security Council (NSC) and Homeland Security Council (HSC) broke new ground by requiring that both the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Director of the CIA (D/CIA) attend meetings of the NSC and HSC and that both agencies participate in meetings of subordinate interagency groups. No explanation accompanied this change in policy. Will it impact how intelligence is used to support NSC policy deliberations and presidential decision-making? Will the involvement of multiple intelligence organizations improve the quality of information available to the “interagency process,” or will this redundancy invite competition that complicates the DNI’s chore of leading a more unified intelligence community (IC)?
A Tale of Two Directives on NSC/HSC Organization
The week after his inauguration President Donald Trump issued NSPM-2, following the well-established practice of recent administrations to clarify through an early directive the structure, leadership, and discretionary membership of the NSC, HSC and subordinate interagency groups like the Principals and Deputies committees (PC/DC). NSPM-2 was poorly received. The order was appropriately panned for including the Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist—a controversial campaign advisor—as a member of the NSC, for excluding the DNI and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from routine participation in PC meetings, and for elevating the fledgling HSC to co-equal status with the NSC.
While the January order was closely modeled on President George W. Bush’s NSPD-1, the Trump team’s modifications were ill considered and inadequately coordinated within the executive branch. In early April, NSPM-2 was superseded by NSPM-4. The April order was more favorably received, reflecting positively on a new Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (National Security Advisor) and maturing interagency coordination processes. The removal of the President’s “Chief Strategist” from the list of regular attendees at NSC, HSC, and PC meetings fueled speculation about his diminished influence in the West Wing. The DNI and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were restored to standing membership on the PC (they were already statutory advisors to the NSC) and the HSC was fully subordinated to the NSC.
New provisions in NSPM-4 that added D/CIA as a regular attendee at NSC and PC meetings and the Deputy Director of the CIA to the DC were noted in media reports and expert commentaries but this decision was largely unexamined. The Trump administration had for the first time formalized an interagency regime for developing, coordinating, and implementing national security policies that involved two different intelligence agencies at each stage of the process.
Principal Advisor to the President on Intelligence Matters
The National Security Act of 1947 established remarkably durable institutions that have enabled presidents over the succeeding decades to exercise their constitutional responsibilities to command the armed forces and safeguard the nation. These institutions included the NSC itself and under it “a Central Intelligence Agency with a Director of Central Intelligence [DCI], who shall be the head thereof.” In addition to leading the CIA, the 1947 Act also charged the DCI with “coordinating the intelligence activities of the several government departments and agencies.” Over the next five decades, a long line of DCIs—as well as dozens of investigatory commissions and advisory panels—struggled to reconcile the DCI’s directive authority over the CIA with his weak coordination authority over a growing and increasingly dispersed IC.
The 1947 Act designated the DCI as the “intelligence advisor to the NSC” while later amendments and executive orders on intelligence described the DCI as the “principal advisor to the president on intelligence matters.” Informed by the report and recommendations of the commission charged with investigating the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Congress in late 2004 passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) that, inter alia, established the new position of DNI charged with building and leading a more unified IC. The IRTPA specifically authorized the DNI to determine the IC’s budget, compel agencies to share information, and to enforce personnel policies aimed at better integrating the IC’s workforce. The new law eliminated the DCI position while creating the separate post of D/CIA, an official who would “report to” the DNI regarding CIA’s activities.
After a statutory organization period, the Office of the DNI (ODNI) stood up in April 2005 and the (first) DNI assumed from the (last) DCI the role of “principal advisor to the President, to the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters related to the national security.” In practice, this meant the DNI began preparing and presenting the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) to President Bush each morning. The DNI also attended NSC and PC meetings while the Principal Deputy DNI became a regular attendee at DC meetings. The CIA Director scheduled separate meetings with the President (always attended by the DNI) to discuss operational matters and the National Security Advisor invited the CIA Director to attend NSC and PC meetings where the discussion might touch on covert action activities being undertaken by the CIA.
After a period of months, CIA petitioned the White House to be present at all interagency meetings arguing that CIA’s covert action programs were often global in scope and that Agency analysts continued to draft the majority of PDB articles and needed to know about policies that were being considered. Implicit in CIA’s request was the critique that feedback CIA was receiving from interagency meetings that its officers had not attended was inadequate to inform CIA’s analytic and covert action activities. CIA’s request was ultimately approved, and senior Agency officials began attending NSC, PC, and DC meetings alongside the DNI and his staff, often contributing substantively to the discussions and taking away follow-on assignments. The practice of inviting CIA to attend most, if not all, interagency meetings apparently continued through President Barack Obama’s term in office, including while a widely publicized disagreement over the respective authorities of the DNI and D/CIA played out.
Intelligence Support to the President and NSC in Practice
The PDB has, for better or worse, emerged from near total obscurity to become the IC’s most recognized vehicle for conveying intelligence information and assessments to senior policymakers. Each president since John Kennedy has, with varying consistency, set aside time each day to receive an update on current intelligence topics either in person, in writing, or through a White House staff member. The IC, in turn, makes an extraordinary effort to ensure PDB items are timely, accurate, and insightful but also that the format of the briefing suits a president’s learning style. Because its readership is both highly restricted and senior, the PDB not only reflects an administration’s national security priorities but can also help shape them. In the post 9/11 era, presidents, presidents-elect, and presidential candidates have been compelled to consider both the informational benefits of taking a regular intelligence briefing but also the political cost of declining it and thereby appearing to be less serious about national security than their predecessors or rivals.
There was a widespread expectation after the IRTPA that IC agencies other than CIA would become more frequent contributors to a PDB under the ODNI’s management. This did not happen. While PDB articles frequently include content from multiple IC agencies, and many articles are coordinated to reflect consensus analytic judgments, CIA is uniquely adapted to drafting, coordinating, and publishing intelligence assessments on a round-the-clock basis and it still dominates the PDB process.
Since 2005, the DNI or one of his deputies routinely attended PDB sessions scheduled in the Oval Office. CIA Directors did not. The ODNI established processes for conveying feedback from PDB sessions with CIA and other IC agencies. In recent public remarks, however, CIA Director Mike Pompeo indicated that he now regularly attends PDB sessions at the White House alongside the more recently confirmed DNI, Dan Coats. Unsurprisingly, both have signaled their interest in building an effective partnership that will serve the intelligence needs of the new administration.
Far less scrutinized than the PDB, but arguably more consequential, is the IC’s daily information support to NSC-led policymaking and key participants in the “interagency process.” Each president and National Security Advisor develops a personal style for leading, respectively, NSC and PC meetings. The same is true for the Deputy National Security Advisor and DC meetings and the chairs of other subordinate interagency working groups. (Under NSPM-4, these groups are designated Policy Coordination Committees and they are all chaired by NSC officials.) Nonetheless, both tradition and common sense dictate that most interagency meetings begin with an intelligence briefing. This briefing serves to update participants on recent developments, helps build a shared factual foundation for later discussions of policy options, and (often, most important) acknowledges gaps in the available facts that are being filled with analytic assessments.
Intelligence veterans refer to this as “setting the table,” an expression that conveys the IC’s service orientation and also signals the conscious separation of the intelligence and policymaking functions. Legendary DCI Richard Helms apparently preferred to stand up and leave NSC meetings after delivering his intelligence briefing to dramatize CIA’s detachment from the policymaking process. Intelligence officials who attend today’s interagency meetings are, of course, expected to stay for the duration to answer questions that may arise and to accept tasks for follow-on assessments. The opportunity to hear the discussion among policy officials provides an intelligence analyst with invaluable feedback on their products and also helps focus future collection and analysis. Depending on the meeting’s topic, a CIA representative may be asked to brief the group on prospective or ongoing covert action operations. In those instances where CIA is briefing on covert action operations, it is important to recognize that the Agency is participating principally as a policy “implementer” and not in the traditional information support role.
The ODNI (and often CIA) also participate extensively, at the discretion of the National Security Advisor and the NSC staff, in preparing for NSC and other interagency meetings. The “read-ahead” package that is sent to NSC, PC, and DC participants before a meeting often includes intelligence products tasked at earlier meetings or specifically requested by the National Security Advisor. Before an important meeting, it is not uncommon for an experienced CIA analyst to draft and coordinate a written intelligence product for the “read-ahead” package, attend separate “pre-brief” sessions for the DNI and D/CIA and ultimately attend the meeting as a “plus one” or note-taker sitting behind one of the principals in the White House Situation Room. It is not unheard of for the DNI and D/CIA to both want the same expert analyst supporting him at a meeting.
Through their staffs, or even directly, the DNI and D/CIA may attempt to coordinate their briefings to the NSC or PC. The CIA Director’s talking points are often supplemented by input from foreign field stations or liaison counterparts while the DNI’s briefing often draws heavily on reporting by non-CIA IC agencies. In the worst case, the DNI and D/CIA will spend time preparing to brief the same facts and assessments, or find themselves airing professional disagreements at interagency meetings. (In some cases, of course, presenting competing intelligence judgments to policymakers is perfectly appropriate but only when it is deliberate and coordinated in advance.)
Benefits/Risks of New Rules on Intelligence Participation in Interagency Meetings
Presidents enjoy wide latitude in organizing and utilizing (or even bypassing) the NSC-led interagency policymaking process. A president has similar flexibility in configuring the IC to meet his administration’s information needs, and also directing CIA to conduct covert actions in support of his policies.
President Trump’s decision to include CIA Director Pompeo in PDB briefings is presumably a sign of confidence in the D/CIA, the product of the lengthy delay in nominating and confirming a DNI, unfamiliarity with the statutory and practical history recounted above, or perhaps all of these factors. In view of the President’s steep learning curve on foreign affairs, the complex global threat environment, and his previous expressions of hostility toward U.S. intelligence, it is arguably most important at this juncture that he becomes fully comfortable with the PDB process, including the team that delivers the briefing.
Former DCIs and DNIs who personally delivered the PDB will, without exception, attest that this chore is exhilarating but also exhausting. To speak with authority on the topics covered in the PDB and field foreseeable questions by the President, Vice President, and others in attendance, the principal often begins reviewing draft articles the evening before and continues cramming in the early morning hours before the briefing. As an institution, CIA openly lamented the loss of daily access to the President but its recent directors all welcomed the opportunity to focus full-time on the Agency’s espionage, all-source analytic, and covert action missions. There is an enormous opportunity cost incurred by requiring the IC’s two most senior officials to prepare for and participate in daily PDB sessions. Ideally, both the DNI and CIA Director would develop comfortable relationships with President Trump, and each other, and the DNI would ultimately assume principal responsibility for delivering the PDB. The D/CIA would attend briefings less regularly to provide operational updates, but not seek to encroach on this core aspect of the DNI’s “principal advisor” role.
The White House did not explain its decision to make mandatory in NSPM-4 the longstanding discretionary practice of inviting the D/CIA to most PC meetings. The National Security Advisor therefore no longer has the flexibility to excuse CIA from a meeting that, for example, addresses a purely domestic topic like an approaching tropical storm, a plot by domestic militia groups, a matter that implicates the mission of another IC agency (like the National Reconnaissance Office concerning plans for future overhead imagery architecture), or the DNI’s presentation of a proposed IC budget (where CIA is just one of 17 agencies receiving allotments determined by the DNI). Unless NSPM-4 is ignored or only selectively applied, CIA may squander a great deal of time preparing for interagency meetings where its interests and potential contributions are marginal.
A Common Sense Division of Labor
The task of ensuring that interagency policy discussions are informed by the best available intelligence and that the respective roles and responsibilities of the DNI and CIA are respected will fall principally to the National Security Advisor, his deputies, and other NSC officials who organize and chair interagency meetings. In the most routine case of an NSC or PC meeting called to discuss an emerging security challenge overseas, the DNI should be expected to update the group on recent developments and convey the IC’s consensus (or competing) assessments of its significance. Under the IRTPA, the DNI is guaranteed access to all “national intelligence,” including reports produced by CIA. For support, the DNI would normally rely on the appropriate IC Mission Manager or a National Intelligence Officer, but he should also be free to enlist the direct support of a substantive expert from any IC agency, including CIA. The CIA’s role in such meetings should be to support the DNI with reporting, expert analysis, and insights gleaned from its overseas field stations and foreign liaison relationships.
When an interagency meeting concerns a region or topic where the President has authorized CIA to engage in covert action activity in support of U.S. policy, the Agency’s representative has two distinct roles: 1) supporting the DNI’s intelligence briefing; and 2) describing its covert activities, coordinating those actions with other agencies, and soliciting policy guidance for future covert operations. With respect to ongoing and proposed CIA covert action activities, the DNI role is that of an advisor and overseer (see EO 12333 1.3(a)(3)).
During the intense debates on proposed intelligence reforms in 2004, most participants anticipated the new DNI’s stiffest challenge would be in wresting control of the intelligence budget and the major “combat support agencies” from the Department of Defense. This fear proved largely unfounded. In its 12-year history, the most serious challenges to the ODNI’s mission and authorities have come from CIA. While laws, executive orders, and policies matter, the post-IRTPA IC has functioned best when the relationships between the DNI, D/CIA, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor have been close and respectful. Promoting closer cooperation by U.S. intelligence agencies has been a longstanding goal, but competition within the IC has been the historic norm.
The Trump administration’s designation of the CIA Director as a standing member of the NSC and PC was not necessary and probably not fully considered, but it need not result in confusion or invite further competition between the CIA and ODNI. This administration will certainly face serious overseas security challenges. Some of these challenges have already been exacerbated by mistakes made during the chaotic first months. The new national security team will need good intelligence, and cannot afford the distraction of feuding intelligence agencies. If it has not already taken place, the National Security Advisor should convene a meeting with the DNI and CIA Director to assign clear roles and responsibilities for providing intelligence support to the President and the interagency policy process. The division of labor developed over the past decade, and described above, is a good place to start in optimizing the contributions of our highly capable but historically contentious IC.