There's a growing dread at the CIA these days that the vultures are circling, waiting to pick off the agency's best parts. The latest move causing concern is a play by Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), to name the next intelligence chief in Kabul. CIA director Leon Panetta, who has already named his own chief from the CIA's ranks, is reportedly fighting back, much to his boss's consternation. The decision about who gets Kabul will reportedly be made in the White House, though Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein has said she doesn't believe Blair can be overruled, according to the legislation that established the DNI. If Blair wins, it would be an unprecedented arrogation of the CIA director's authority, and the first time in its history the CIA would not be the lead intelligence agency in a foreign country.
This may sound like just the usual petty Washington bureaucratic maneuvering, with no real consequence. But for the CIA the stakes are critical existential, even, if you share my pessimism about its future. The CIA was given charge of spying overseas in the 1947 National Security Act, with unique authority to appoint chiefs of station. The act also put the CIA in charge of dealing with foreign intelligence services. The intent of the act was to make one agency responsible for coordinating all intelligence to prevent anything falling through the cracks, another Pearl Harbor. The CIA certainly has let things fall through the cracks, but won't a free-for-all for the lead intel post abroad make our intelligence more dysfunctional than ever? ()
The CIA would be justified in asking itself, What will stop Blair from taking another key station Baghdad, for instance? Blair is a Navy officer, and the suspicion is that his grab for Kabul has something to do with a plan for the Pentagon to assume the CIA's authority. What's more, it's not as if Blair's argument is without merit. We are in the middle of two inconclusive wars, and the Pentagon needs good, detailed tactical intelligence on these two countries, so why shouldn't Blair cater to the Pentagon's needs, possibly even appoint a uniformed military officer to Kabul? The CIA is better at political and strategic intelligence, but those are secondary considerations in hot wars. But by the same logic, will Blair then ask for Beijing and Moscow, this country's most important conventional-military threats? At the end of the day, the CIA is left with what, Luxembourg?
In order to really understand the CIA's angst, you have to remember that the Pentagon already takes more than 80% of the intelligence budget. It runs the National Security Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency and is in charge of satellites. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon dwarfs the CIA in terms of people and money it has for spying. Which leaves the CIA with stations like Kabul serving as small but important citadels of independent civilian intelligence. ()
And that independence is key. What few people understand is that a CIA station chief in every country in the world has the authority to send back to Washington and disseminate around the government what is essentially finished analysis. This happened in Iraq in mid-2003, when the CIA station in Baghdad sounded the alarm that the invasion was about to go very badly. When the White House and the Pentagon's civilian management read the Baghdad chief's conclusions, they raged, dismissing the analysis as "defeatist," even going so far as to accuse the chief of being a closet Democrat. The chief came home, but that did not stop his successors, CIA officers from the ranks, from sending in similar bad news every 60 days.
I do not know whether Blair intends to appoint a uniformed officer chief in Kabul or not. But if he does, we need to know whether that chief will be in the military's chain of command or remain an independent voice, one the President needs to hear as we get deeper and deeper into Afghanistan.
Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know.