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House Eyes Overhaul of Defense Intelligence Agency

Handful of offices and missions targeted for elimination

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, could see his agency change if the House Intelligence Committee gets its way. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, could see his agency change if the House Intelligence Committee gets its way. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency is in the cross hairs of the House Intelligence Committee, which is aiming for a radical overhaul of the military’s spy arm.

The committee sees it as bloated and ineffective. But how far such an effort would go remains to be seen as several other congressional oversight panels that would have a say are waiting for a fuller assessment to emerge before they sign off on major changes.

The House Intelligence Committee’s report accompanying the fiscal 2018 intelligence authorization bill takes aim at the DIA by calling for the elimination of a handful of missions that are “tangential to the DIA’s core missions and responsibilities” or are “duplicative of functions conducted elsewhere.”

The report lists a handful of offices and missions targeted for elimination, including the Information Review Task Force, the Identity Intelligence Project Office, the Watchlisting Branch, the Counter Threat Finance Branch and the National Intelligence University. Many of those functions would be transferred to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other federal agencies such as the Treasury Department, according to the report.

This year’s recommendations are only the first step in a much broader change being contemplated, said a congressional official familiar with the panel’s work.

The committee is undertaking a comprehensive assessment, asking the DIA and the consumers of its intelligence to conduct self-evaluations and reviews, the official said. Based on those evaluations, the committee expects by next year to overhaul the DIA along the lines of what the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act did to reorganize the Pentagon, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the proposals are still under discussion among the various congressional committees.

The DIA has been assigned missions, both by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, as well as the Pentagon’s undersecretary for intelligence, “that don’t necessarily fit anywhere else,” the official said. On its website, the agency says it has 87 distinctive missions.

Since DIA was established in 1961, its missions have grown in unhealthy ways, said David Shedd, who served as a former deputy director of DIA for four years until 2014; he also briefly served as the acting director of the agency.

DIA is one of the three elements of the intelligence community — the CIA and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research are the other two — that are all-source agencies, meaning they use all varieties of intelligence — whether collected by satellites, humans, or cyber — in making its analyses.

After the review, lawmakers “should really strip away things that are ancillary and that have grown on like barnacles on the hull of a ship over time,” said Shedd, who is now a member of the advisory board at Beacon Global Strategies, a strategic consulting firm.

Countless responsibilities

Over the course of DIA’s history, it has been given numerous responsibilities outside its core mission of providing intelligence to U.S. warfighters, missions that may be better accomplished by other U.S. government agencies, another congressional aide said.

The House Intelligence Committee, along with its Senate counterpart, as well as the House and Senate Armed Services committees and Appropriations committees, are studying whether the DIA is the right place for such missions, congressional officials said.

The House Armed Services Committee is aware of the work being done by House Intelligence and is awaiting results of the review, reserving judgment of the effort until the assessment is complete, a committee aide said.

To take effect, the House Intelligence Committee’s recommendations would have to be echoed in a conference report produced jointly with its Senate counterpart and then signed into law by the president.

Many missions

DIA has the most diverse mission set and the largest customer base in the intelligence community, according to James Kudla, a spokesman for the agency.

Congress already directed the U.S. undersecretary of Defense for intelligence to undertake a study of the DIA’s roles and missions in the fiscal 2017 intelligence authorization bill, Kudla said. And that review is under way and is due to Congress in early 2018, he said.

DIA employs 16,500 people and has a presence in 140 countries, primarily through the defense attaché service. The agency is responsible for defense intelligence studies of foreign militaries and their operations, equipment, systems, and “our customer base includes everybody from the president to the individual soldiers on the battlefield,” Kudla said.

The agency provides all-source foundational intelligence that “provides detailed answers to how high, how fast, how many, how organized, and how capable the military threat is that the United States faces,” Kudla said.

Operational needs

From visits with U.S. troops, classified briefings and reports, the House Intelligence Committee, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has determined that the defense intelligence apparatus is not meeting the operational needs of frontline troops, the congressional official said.

A fuller picture of the scope of DIA’s reorganization is likely to emerge by this time next year, the official said.

The congressional review should determine what exactly the warfighter needs from the DIA and use that to refocus the agency’s efforts in support of the nine U.S. combatant commands, Shedd said.

Lawmakers already have identified a handful of DIA missions that can be moved out of its lane. The agency’s Information Review Task Force is one of the ones that would be shifted to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The task force was formed in August 2010 in the aftermath of Chelsea Manning’s leaks of classified information to WikiLeaks, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the DIA to set up a panel to assess the impact of the disclosures. In July 2013, the then-head of the DIA, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, created another task force to assess the damage from the Edward Snowden leaks about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.

The DIA task forces are examples of a mission assigned to the DIA but not backed up by sufficient money, the congressional official said.

“If you’re going to stand up a task force to operate as a warning device and a force protection element to really help the Pentagon assess the full impact of these leaks, but you’re not going to resource it effectively, that’s not something from a congressional perspective we are going to support,” the official said.

Another example is tracking the sources of financing for the Islamic State and other terror groups, done by DIA’s Counter Threat Finance Branch, the second congressional aide said. That job is better done by the Treasury Department, which already has extensive expertise in the area, the aide said.

U-2s to liaison work

The DIA was created in 1961 by bringing under one umbrella the intelligence activities of the different military services. Planning U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the agency’s earliest missions.

The agency then helped plan rescues of prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. In 1986 the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which reorganized the Pentagon, designated the DIA as a combat support agency, putting it in charge of battlefield intelligence, but also placing it under the supervision of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The agency’s missions and scope have expanded since then. In its 2016 annual strategy document, the agency says its work “supports a wide customer base, ranging from the forward-deployed warfighter to the national policy maker and the weapons acquisition community.”

Another example of mission creep for the DIA is that in 2008, it was asked to take on the DoD Embassy and Consulate Services tasks. The work involves being a liaison between the Pentagon and the State Department, and managing the common administrative support at more than 250 diplomatic posts around the world.

The congressional and Pentagon review should turn DIA into an agency that is more relevant to frontline military units, Shedd said.

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