The NCIX and the National Counterintelligence Mission — Michelle Van Cleave


Foreign intelligence services have stolen U.S. national security secrets for decades. The damage Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen, and Chinese agents have inflicted on U.S. national security has been incalculable. To remedy this problem, the office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (NCIX) was established in 2001 to provide strategic direction to U.S. counterintelligence (CI) and to integrate and coordinate the diverse CI activities of the U.S. government (USG). Nevertheless, interagency struggles and a lack of authority have frustrated the new office. American secrets remain excessively vulnerable to foreign intelligence services.

This case study, written by the first National Counterintelligence Executive appointed by the President, discusses the challenges of leading and integrating the U.S. CI enterprise. It discusses issues ranging from the practical details of setting up and staffing a new USG office to the interagency mechanisms for reaching consensus and implementing policy. The study also explains the significance of the first national counterintelligence strategy, which established new policy imperatives to integrate CI insights into national security planning and engage CI collection and operations as a tool to advance national security objectives.

U.S. counterintelligence duties have historically been dispersed among independent departments and agencies. By creating the NCIX, the Congress sought to replace this divided approach with a more integrated and effective U.S. CI apparatus. The Counterintelligence Enhancement Act established the duties of the NCIX, which include: identifying and prioritizing the foreign intelligence threats of concern to the United States; developing a strategy to guide CI plans and programs to defeat those threats; evaluating the performance of the CI agencies against those strategic objectives; and ensuring that the budgets of the many CI organizations of the federal government are developed in accordance with strategic priorities. In 2005, the NCIX issued the first National Counterintelligence Strategy, which set forth consistent, clear, and new strategic direction for U.S. counterintelligence. The subsequent creation of the office of the Director of National Intelligence, to whom the NCIX now reports, consolidated the NCIX mission within the new architecture of U.S. intelligence.

Getting the departments and agencies to work together with the NCIX to implement the national CI strategy has proven an elusive goal. Efforts towards this end have been complicated by the unique history of the disaggregated U.S. CI enterprise, deficiencies in the NCIX and DNI organizations, and a seeming lack of awareness of the gravity of foreign intelligence threats among national security leadership. Interagency cooperation in many cases proved anathema to the U.S. government’s CI organizations. The FBI, for example, which consumes the lion’s share of U.S. CI dollars and billets, unilaterally withdrew most of its personnel from the NCIX office. In addition, the FBI’s counterintelligence division published its own “national strategy for counterintelligence” two months after the NCIX’s presidentially approved strategy was issued. The creation of the DNI did not facilitate cooperation––in fact, the DNI has worked to weaken the NCIX as it has eclipsed that office’s authorities in counterintelligence budget, collection, and coordination.

The Counterintelligence Enhancement Act established a national leader to bring strategic direction to U.S. counterintelligence, but the legislation failed to establish a strategic counterintelligence program. While charging the NCIX with responsibility for heading counterintelligence, the law did not assign the NCIX the authorities needed to manage a strategic CI program. Though the NCIX office is responsible for providing strategic direction to U.S. counterintelligence, it does not have the power to direct budget allocations. Program and budget authorities for CI activities remain divided among the departments and agencies and subject to their individual priorities, which too often take precedence over national objectives.

Similarly, NCIX is given the responsibility to evaluate department and agency performance, but it is not empowered to direct programmatic changes. Under this model, the NCIX is inherently advisory, rather than authoritative. In addition, within the office of the DNI, authorities and lines of responsibility for counterintelligence have become blurred, diluting the concentrated focus and guidance that the NCIX was created to provide.

A series of government and independent analyses have documented the high costs of the seams in U.S. counterintelligence strategy. Failing to establish an effective national CI leader threatens to replicate past costs. Seven years after the NCIX was created, no single entity is capable of providing a comprehensive threat assessment of possible foreign intelligence successes, supporting operations, or formulating policy options for the President and his national security team. While CI-related cooperation among the FBI, CIA, and the military services has increased, this collaboration has failed to provide the comprehensive, well-integrated CI strategy and policies required to uphold U.S. national security.

The NCIX seemed poised to succeed when created. It had widespread congressional support, a consolidated National Strategy, the endorsement of a highly respected commission, and the President’s personal backing. Yet, the statutory intent to integrate U.S. CI efforts has been repeatedly frustrated. Due to the weaknesses of the NCIX and the lack of a strategic program, individual agency priorities have eclipsed USG-wide CI integration. As a consequence, Washington has inadequately addressed the threats posed by foreign intelligence agencies to U.S. national security.

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