National Security

DNI Combines Security Functions with Counterintelligence Unit

Critics say Clapper center will further diminish counterspy efforts

James Clapper
James Clapper / AP

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced Monday the creation of a new security and counterintelligence center that critics say will diminish U.S. spy hunting efforts.

"The establishment of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center supports our effort to ensure counterintelligence and security are addressed as interdependent and mutually supportive disciplines," Clapper said in a statement announcing the center.

"These disciplines have shared objectives and responsibilities associated with the protection of information, sources, and methods."

The center combines the functions of government security programs, such as issuing tens of thousands of security clearances to government personnel and conducting background checks and investigations, with the mission of countering the activities of foreign intelligence services, currently the role of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, created to improve counterspy programs in the aftermath of a string of extremely damaging spy cases in the 1990s.

Michelle Van Cleave, National Counterintelligence Executive—known as NCIX—during the George W. Bush administration, said adding the security mission to counterintelligence programs will dilute spy-catching efforts.

The new center is part of Obama administration efforts to return counterintelligence to its pre-1994 organization and funding.

"Security and counterintelligence are complimentary missions, to be sure," Van Cleave said in an email.

"However, the imperative in creating the NCIX was to have a single head of U.S. counterintelligence with a singular mission and purpose and funding," she said.

"Combining [counterintelligence] and security is part of a flawed historical model for the CI enterprise," Van Cleave added. "Security has an unbounded appetite for dollars and attention. It is the here and now versus the longer, strategic needs of CI. And the here and now always gets priority."

Additionally, Van Cleave said that under Clapper, the Pentagon intelligence budget was realigned in the current intelligence authorization act. The law requires that the Pentagon foreign counterintelligence program be merged with the general defense intelligence program.

"That is a surefire recipe for CI funding to be redirected to other purposes," Van Cleave said.

Kenneth deGraffenreid, White House National Security Council intelligence director during the administration of Ronald Reagan, also criticized the new center.

Combining security and counterintelligence can be beneficial in theory, but during the Obama administration, counterintelligence has been downgraded, said deGraffenreid, a former deputy national counterintelligence executive.

Congress reformed counterintelligence with legislation creating the NCIX but both the FBI and CIA refused to cooperate with the new entity.

"This is part of an effort to finish off counterintelligence," deGraffenreid said. "Since 2001 there has not been a single arrest for foreign espionage."

The Obama administration has been stung by a series of intelligence and security disasters, beginning with the disclosure of more than 750,000 classified documents leaked to the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks by Army Sgt. Bradley Manning.

Manning was convicted of espionage in July 2013 in what is widely considered one of the most damaging unauthorized disclosures of intelligence information in U.S. history. He is serving a 35-year prison term.

Manning, in 2010, used his access to an intelligence database in Iraq to siphon off secret documents onto external disks while appearing to listen to music CDs.

Despite calls for tightening security and intelligence-sharing after Wikileaks, U.S. intelligence then was struck with its worst security failure in history: The theft and piecemeal disclosure of an estimated 1.7 million National Security Agency documents by NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The damage from the NSA disclosures has been ongoing as news outlets such as Britain’s Guardian, the Washington Post, and others news organizations continue to release NSA documents, most of them classified at the "Top Secret" level.

The new DNI center will be headed by current National Counterintelligence Executive William Evanina, who will continue as both the senior counterintelligence policymaker at NCIX and head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

The center is part of efforts to establish other intelligence centers, such as the National Counterproliferation Center and the National Counterterrorism Center.

The ODNI said in a statement that Clapper began to restructure his office—which was created to centralize control of the United States’ sprawling intelligence community in the aftermath of the failures surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—in August 2010.

The objective of the restructuring is to improve efficiency, reduce duplicative functions, and integrate core intelligence functions.

As part of that effort, Clapper set up the Special Security Directorate and the Center for Security Evaluation, which had the mission of "safeguarding the United States from intelligence threats," the ODNI statement said.

Those security entities were merged with the National Counterintelligence Executive in November 2010 to boost protection of national intelligence and "saved money by enabling the consolidation of common functions," ODNI said.

"The establishment of the NCSC is the next step in the effective integration of counterintelligence and security missions under a single organization structure," the statement said.

The ODNI said the Counterintelligence Executive cannot be replaced by the new center because the position and related office was created by the Counterintelligence Enhancement Act of 2002.

U.S. intelligence agencies were stung in recent decades by a series of spy cases, the most damaging of which was the Soviet and later Russian espionage operation involving FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who spied from 1979 until his arrest in 2001.

A spokesman for the new center, Gene Barlow, said the creation of the new entity is a logical consequence of combining the security function with the counterintelligence mission. "It’s the name catching up with the mission," he said.

The new center is not related to the Wikileaks and Snowden debacles, he said.

The consolidation of security and counterintelligence also is not focused on stopping press leaks, Barlow said. "No, that is not the impetus," he said.

The Obama administration has mounted several prosecution attempts against news reporters, notably New York Times reporter James Risen, who is being pressured by prosecutors to testify against a source. Risen has vowed to resist the attempts, citing First Amendment press freedoms that protect the confidentiality of news sources.