Intel Agencies Vie for Obama's Attention

Barack Obama has been president-elect for barely 10 days but already there are signs of tension among U.S. spy agencies over his intelligence briefings.

The squabbling centers around who should get credit for putting the briefings together and for supplying hot information and penetrating analysis to Obama and his national-security team. According to government officials, some of the more obscure and media-shy agencies worry they are not getting enough recognition for contributions they make to the intelligence outlook provided daily to the administration-in-waiting.

Two days after Obama's victory, the government's top spy, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, flew to Chicago with a small team to give the president-elect his first full-scale intelligence briefing. After the session, McConnell, who oversees the CIA and serves as the president's principal intelligence adviser, returned to Washington. He assigned further Obama briefings to Mike Morrell, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence—in practice, the agency's chief analyst. Two career CIA analysts deliver most of the oral briefing presentations, though representatives of intel czar McConnell's office are often present.

Within hours of Obama's victory, the CIA appears to have touched off jostling among intelligence agencies. On Nov. 5, the day after the election, CIA Director Michael Hayden sent a message to agency employees affirming the "central part" that the CIA would play in the "Intelligence Community's outreach to the President-elect."

Hayden's message noted that McConnell would "launch" the intelligence community's first official briefing of the president-elect and his "incoming administration." The message went on to note that the CIA had "already prepared a great deal of information" about itself for Obama's team.

Citing Hayden's unclassified message, media outlets published stories about how the CIA had mobilized rapidly to provide Obama with the same kind of daily intelligence feed President Bush receives from McConnell. Last Monday, however, the Web site of the intel czar carried its own statement reasserting its central role in the transition process.

The intel director's office's statement didn't mention the CIA at all. Instead, it pointed out that "The President-elect will now be offered the same briefing given to President Bush each morning," and that the "Office of the Director of National Intelligence will continue to lead the effort."

Richard Willing, spokesman for McConnell's office, said the statement was one of a series of routine messages that takes note of news stories about its activities. But one current and one former intelligence official (who both asked for anonymity when discussing spy-agency politics) said the statement by McConnell's staff sparked discussion around the intelligence community that the intel czar's office wanted to reassert its lead role in preparing the Obama briefings.

Two other officials, who also asked for anonymity, pointed out that it was only logical for the CIA to highlight its central role in briefing Obama, since the agency's analysts write as much as 90 percent of the content that makes it into the top-secret President's Daily Brief, or PDB.

"It's important that CIA employees know what their agency is doing to support a smooth presidential transition," saiys Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman. "That includes decisive contributions to the DNI-led presidential-briefing process. CIA's role in the intelligence community is clear, well-defined and a source of real pride. There's no reason at all for anyone to point fingers or cower in a far corner of the room—if, in fact, that's going on anywhere."

The CIA analysts usually base their PDB contributions on what is known in the spy business as "all source" intelligence. They put together a mosaic of information from such sources as the CIA's own National Clandestine Service (responsible for collecting information from secret agents, known as HUMINT), the National Security Agency (responsible for monitoring electronic messages and "signals" like phone calls and e-mails, known as SIGINT) and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for processing images taken by spy satellites and airplanes (known as IMINT).

If an agency other than the CIA has a major breakthrough that it wants to urgently call to the attention of the president (or president-elect), the agency can either write its own paper on the subject for inclusion in PDB or ask the intel czar's office to invite a representative of that office to participate in a daily briefing. It is not known whether other agencies have yet asked to present their material directly to Obama.

In approving the post-9/11 law setting up an Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Congress hoped to put an end to the rivalries among the 16 fractious and secretive agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence "community." But the jockeying over the briefings for Obama is a sign that the bureaucratic maneuvering is anything but over. It also leaves open the question of where the agencies will stand—and who will head them—in the incoming Obama administration. Although both McConnell and Hayden expressed a willingness to stay on for some period of time, sources close to the Obama transition say this is unlikely, given that both men zealously defended controversial Bush administration policies—such as the warrantless-wiretapping program—that the incoming Democratic president opposed during the campaign.