The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) doesn’t actually run an intelligence agency. Rather, the DNI runs the office that oversees the work of the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. Thus the ODNI is thus a bureaucratic hybrid that nominally supervises U.S. intelligence but doesn’t have budgetary or operational authority over any agency.
The ODNI was created by Congress after the 9/11 attacks to integrate the work of U.S. intelligence agencies. The failure of the FBI and the CIA to share information before the attacks were cited as the reason to create the position. Whether the legislation has succeeded in fostering greater cooperation is an open question. What is certain is that ODNI is here to stay.
The ODNI employs about 1,500 people, including professionals, contractors, and detailees from other agencies. The first three DNIs only served two years each, a reflection, it was said, of the position’s limited powers. However, James Clapper, former NSA director appointed by President Obama, served seven years, focusing on developing a common information technology desktop for the intelligence agencies.
Clapper elevated the political profile of the ODNI in March 2013 when Senator Ron Wyden asked him “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” Clapper responded, “No, sir.” Wyden asked “It does not?” and Clapper said, “Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
NSA systems administrator Edward Snowden later told a German news organization it was Clapper’s false statement that prompted him to collect and leak documents proving hat the NSA did indeed spy on millions of Americans.
Clapper was succeeded by former Senator Dan Coats who alienated President Trump by differing from the White House views of Iran and North Korea. Trump sought to appoint Texas Congressman John Ratcliffe to serve as DNI. Congressional Republicans were cool to the idea, and Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration. Trump then appointed Joseph Maguire, head of the counterterrorism center in ODNI, as acting director. On orders of the Trump White House, Maguire initially withheld from Congress a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. When the existence of the complaint leaked, Maguire relented and forwarded it to Congress, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to open impeachment proceedings. President Trump then appointed Ratcliffe to serve as DNI. It turns out that Ratcliffe followed a slew of QAnon accounts.
President Biden’s nominee for DNI, former deputy CIA director Avril Haines, was the first cabinet officer confirmed in the new administration. Haines is the first woman to run the ODNI.