WASHINGTON -- The elephant in the room that was utterly ignored during President Bush's introduction of John Negroponte as his nominee for the new post of director of national intelligence was, of course, the FBI. In assuring reporters and those watching on television that Negroponte would have his ear and his strong support, the president talked only in terms of the CIA.
None of the reporters who attended the announcement and press conference that morning touched on the question of the FBI's status or its role in this shakeup that is intended to strengthen the chain of command and break down the barriers between the 15 agencies that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus. Nor has there been much public discussion, if any at all, about the bureau's relationship to the DNI in the days since.
If Porter Goss, director of the CIA, will be required to report to Negroponte, who will then report directly to Bush in the presidential daily brief each morning, will the same requirement be imposed on FBI Director Robert Mueller, whose agency has unchallenged responsibility for all domestic intelligence and counterintelligence operations? Or will Mueller bypass Negroponte and add his own intelligence assessments to the PDB and to the president?
Then there is the question of budget. Will the FBI share of the estimated $40 billion now being spent annually on intelligence gathering be under Negroponte's control or continue to be regulated by the Justice Department -- specifically, the attorney general, to whom Mueller is answerable on most matters, including its intelligence activities at the moment?
The answers here are not easy. Unlike the CIA and the National Security Agency, the FBI has a variety of other missions that it has been increasingly reluctant to downgrade despite promises to shift much of its focus to counterintelligence since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. While its intelligence directorate has been beefed up, it still concentrates the balance of its activities on law enforcement. Despite the bureau's key role then in this vital area of national security over which Negroponte is supposed to have the last word, the new DNI authority in FBI intelligence matters could be extremely limited without an unambiguous order from the president similar to the one he has publicly stated for the CIA director. The same is true of the intelligence gathering of the Pentagon, which has the largest share of the annual budget for such agencies under its control as the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
This confusion and possible diminution of the DNI's power have led many in Congress and in the international intelligence community to have low expectations for its success. This has given rise to suggestions that the FBI either spin off most of its law-enforcement responsibility to other federal agencies like its Justice Department sister -- Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- or shed its intelligence function, which would then be incorporated into a new agency combining domestic and overseas operations like Britain's MI5. So far there has been reluctance in all quarters to discuss these proposals in depth. But some observers believe that if the DNI fails to bring some semblance of centralized control over intelligence, the next step might be to place the MI5 approach on the front burner.
Complicating matters for the DNI is the bad blood that has long existed between the FBI and the CIA. Following 9/11, there were pledges from both that they would put aside their differences and launch a new spirit of cooperation. On the surface, that seemed to be working, but hard feelings appear to have erupted once again because of a bureau move to establish its own network of informants and spies abroad, and to take over the interrogation of foreign sources when they return to this country. Both activities have been under CIA control since the agency was created 58 years ago. This has prompted speculation that the newfound cooperation was a myth all along.
A question of authority
Hopefully, Senate confirmation hearings on Negroponte's appointment will clarify to some extent just how much authority he will really have and where the bureau stands in all this. Both the FBI and the CIA have strong supporters in Congress, many of whom see any dramatic downgrading of whichever agency they favor as an attack on their own authority. Negroponte, who has a long history of dealing with complex governmental problems, will be put to the test in this one, even with presidential support.
After all, presidents change, but the FBI doesn't.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.