Can anyone end the dispute between the nation's intelligence chiefs? The National Security Council tried and failed; National Security Adviser Jim Jones tried and failed. Now it looks as if Vice President Joe Biden's effort to referee the dispute between CIA Director Leon Panetta and his boss, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, has not completely resolved the differences either.
At issue in the pair's long-running tension is the right to name the chief intelligence officer in any U.S. mission abroad. A typical embassy has representatives from several intel agencies CIA, FBI, NSA, military intelligence, et al. and one of them is designated the top dog, responsible for liaising with the intelligence agencies of the host country, among other things. For decades, that job has fallen automatically to the CIA station chief. But after the DNI was created in 2004, a question arose: As head of 16 intelligence agencies, should the DNI have the right to name someone other than the CIA station chief as the top intel officer in each mission?
Since the legislation creating the DNI was hastily put together, the question like many others is not clearly answered. Successive CIA directors have pointed out that because the main task of the top intel person in any mission is to interact with the host country's spy agencies, the CIA station chief is the natural choice. The DNI view, however, is that in some missions, the CIA role is relatively small, and it might make sense for the representative of another agency to take the lead role.
When Blair and Panetta were appointed by President Obama, the question was still unanswered, and the matter was taken to the NSC for adjudication. In May, when Blair issued a directive claiming the right, "in rare circumstances," to nominate a non-CIA person as the top intel official in foreign missions, Panetta immediately took issue with it, and the dispute quickly escalated.
"This was a symbolic fight it's about who's in charge of the playground," says Amy Zegart, a UCLA professor and national-security expert. "Blair was trying to show who's boss, and Panetta was trying to protect the power of an agency that's going through a difficult time."
The Senate intelligence committee backed the Blair directive, arguing in its 2010 intelligence-authorization bill that the DNI was "exercising his authority under the law." The CIA, however, continued to press its case.
With the NSC and Jones unable to come to a judgment, the matter was taken up to Biden, who held at least two meetings with Panetta and Blair over the past several months. Biden's office, the CIA and the DNI have all refused to comment on these meetings, but officials familiar with the deliberations say that last month the Vice President came down on Panetta's side.
An Administration official tells TIME that "the key goal [is] to avoid confusion among American ambassadors and foreign partners as to who on the U.S. country team is responsible for intelligence. Clarity and consistency count. For that reason, among others, there won't be any change in the role of CIA station chiefs, who have managed the nation's overseas intelligence system for well over 60 years." The official adds, "Since the DNI was established, station chiefs have also served as DNI representatives, and that arrangement, too, will continue."
Former CIA station chiefs say that's as it should be. "Directors of the CIA may come and go, DNIs may come and go, but the continuity of relationships with foreign partners is critical," says Robert Grenier, who was station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and is now chairman of the advisory firm ERG Partners. "The CIA has managed these relationships for decades."
But even now it's not clear that the issue has been fully resolved. Part of the problem is there has not been a general announcement to the intelligence community about Biden's decision. Some experts surmise that this is to spare Blair's feelings. But intelligence insiders say the DNI is taking the view that the matter is still being adjudicated. And indeed, Blair has not rescinded his directive, leaving room for continuing ambiguity.
DNI spokeswoman Wendy Morigi tells TIME, "There may be an agreement to disagree on this [and] that we all need to move on. It might be that this one may not be resolvable." The crucial thing, Morigi says, is that this dispute "doesn't preclude [the DNI and CIA] from getting their work done" on other matters.