The White House this week sided with Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta in a turf battle he was waging against President Obama's director of national intelligence, Adm. Dennis Blair (Ret.), knowledgeable sources tell ABC News.
For decades, the chief U.S. intelligence officer in each country traditionally has been the CIA station chief. Ever since the Office of Director of National Intelligence was created in 2004, the CIA station chief has also served as the eyes and ears for the DNI.
Earlier this year, Blair suggested that, in certain circumstances, he should get to pick the person whom he wants to serve as his eyes and ears abroad, picking among the various agency officials in each country, that often include officials from not just the CIA but the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, military intelligence and so on.
Panetta didn't take warmly to the idea, sources tell ABC News.
Then in May, Blair issued a memo to intelligence officials stating that he would assume that responsibility. Panetta issued a counter-memo telling intelligence officials to carry on as they had been, since the matter was not resolved. The White House was asked to decide who has authority.
The issue was a "hot potato," one official said, since no one in the Obama administration seemed to want to offend either Panetta or Blair. National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones (Ret.) was unable to resolve the disagreement. Vice President Biden was unable to resolve the disagreement. The decision then went back to Jones. This issue became a proxy for other issues involving who was the head of the intelligence community.
This week, Jones sided with Panetta on the turf issue, but sources said he reinforced Blair's authority as head of the intelligence community on other more secret matters.
“The White House has made its decision," a U.S. intelligence official tells ABC News. "The bottom line is that CIA station chiefs will also — without exception — be the DNI’s representatives in embassies overseas. That arrangement — consistent from one American embassy to the next — precludes any confusion over who speaks for U.S. intelligence abroad. Our ambassadors know, and our partners know. They have a single point of contact. It’s a clear, logical outcome.”
The position of director of national intelligence was created in 2004 as a result of intelligence missteps and miscommunication leading up to the 9/11 attacks. The idea was to have one central White House official to serve as the head of the intelligence community overseeing the National Intelligence Program and serving as the principal intelligence advisor to the president, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council for intelligence matters.
Given that authority, government officials say, and the fact that the CIA is, at least on paper, supposed to answer to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it wasn't unreasonable for DNI Blair to assert that he should have the right to name the top spy. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee backed Blair's view as expressed in the memo.
But Panetta — a skilled Washington, D.C., political operator with many allies in the White House — asserted that the CIA's responsibility is to interact with the intelligence agencies of other countries, that CIA station chiefs have been handling the job for more than half a century, and anyone given the position of Blair's "eyes and ears" would cause confusion as to who the top intelligence officer in each country is.
And ultimately, the White House decided to side with Panetta.
Everyone in the administration is now, of course, trying to put a good face on it all and put the turf battle in the rear-view mirror.
"With this matter resolved, the CIA looks forward to an even stronger relationship with the DNI," said George Little of the CIA Office of Public Affairs.
“Director Blair strongly believes that the president and the nation deserve a national security team that is focused on the big issues — efforts to keep the country safe from another terrorist attack and gaining insights to prevent our adversaries from undermining U.S. interests," said Wendy Morigi, a spokesperson for Director Blair. “One of the important lessons of 9/11 was that we needed one person in charge of the efforts to coordinate, integrate and drive best practices across the Intelligence Community. This agreement – which addresses several key authorities — reinforces the DNI’s important mission of advancing an intelligence community team that is greater than the sum of its parts.”