WASHINGTON — The nation's two intelligence chiefs are locked in a turf battle over overseas posts, forcing National Security Adviser James L. Jones to mediate, according to current and former government officials.
The jockeying between CIA Director Leon Panetta and National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair centers on Blair's effort to choose his own representatives at U.S. embassies instead of relying only on CIA station chiefs. Current and former U.S. officials described the dispute on the condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of intelligence issues.
Blair's office was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to better coordinate intelligence gathering and make sure critical information isn't overlooked. But former and current CIA officials warn that his plan could do just the opposite — creating competing chains of command inside U.S. embassies and potentially fouling up intelligence operations. They also worry it could complicate the delicate relationships between U.S. and foreign intelligence services, and leave ambassadors confused about where to turn for intelligence advice.
CIA station chiefs posted in American embassies have handled the national intelligence role abroad for the last four years, but Blair wants the option of designating other intelligence specialists for the job. That prompted strong objections from Panetta.
The question has been referred to Jones, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, to settle.
Blair's attempt to exert his authority complicates an already strained relationship with the CIA. The DNI's office has traditionally relied on the power of persuasion to further its mandate of fostering cooperation between the 16 disparate intelligence agencies.
Blair's plan is contained in a classified May 19 intelligence community directive, a policy document periodically issued by his office to the 16 agencies underneath him.
From the DNI's perspective, the proposal would allow Blair to tap the most relevant intelligence officer in an embassy or foreign country to serve as his eyes and ears.
In most cases that would be the CIA station chief. The station chief system has existed for 50 years, allowing the CIA to call the shots on pursuing and managing relationships with foreign intelligence and security services, and coordinating — and sometimes constraining — the work of other U.S. intelligence agencies and military forces abroad.
But in some countries the United States has few if any spies on the ground, and relies instead mostly on electronic eavesdropping to collect intelligence. A former senior intelligence official said that in those cases, Blair might want to have the senior National Security Agency officer instead of the station chief at the embassy serve as his personal representative.
The CIA last year successfully derailed a similar effort by the national intelligence director's office, then headed by former Adm. Mike McConnell.
Blair's directive was described by some government officials as an attempt to shore up both the office's authority and its ability to oversee foreign operations, which has so far been stronger on paper than in practice.
Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing in January that he intended to fully exercise the authorities of the DNI's office, and said if its powers proved inadequate he would ask Congress and the president to strengthen them.
Neither agency would comment officially.
"This matter is under review by the national security adviser and we have no further comment," CIA spokesman George Little said.
Blair's spokeswoman, Wendy Morigi, declined to comment. The National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.
The dispute over the espionage organizational chart could have far-reaching implications, according to former and current CIA officials who oppose the change.
The officials said the move could lead to a bisected intelligence structure in the field that would end up with CIA station chiefs carrying out day-to-day spy operations while intelligence director representatives oversee and report back to Blair on the same operations. CIA veterans warned it could complicate and slow missions that require rapid decisions.
CIA officials also said the move could confuse or degrade long-standing relationships with foreign intelligence agencies and U.S. ambassadors who would not know whether to rely on the word of the station chiefs or the national intelligence director's representatives.