WASHINGTON (CNN) - When Mike McConnell began his final news briefing as Director of National Intelligence, he joked with reporters he might have to wake up a few of us, because what he does is "dull stuff."
It might be dull, but McConnell and supporters of intelligence reform would argue the work of the DNI's office is a critical part of keeping Americans safe - addressing the reasons intelligence community failed to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks: its failure to connect the dots, the existence of too many "stovepipes" and a lack of information-sharing.
One of the most important missions of the DNI is to ensure all 16 agencies and departments which make up the intelligence community are all working in sync, all have access to the same information. McConnell says, "a DNI wakes up every day worrying about the community, willing to take on some of these issues of cross boundary activities and work them with a persistence and an aggressiveness that forces closure."
It sounds bureaucratic, but that's the role of the DNI. Yes, the DNI keeps track of the critical national security issues - terrorism, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, cyber protection - but its is the various intelligence agencies who have the operators and the analysts who work the problems. The DNI has to make sure they are doing it as a community.
McConnell wishes there was a Department of Intelligence which would give the DNI absolute authority, but those were not the cards Congress dealt when it created the office in late 2004. McConnell points out there are 16 agencies "who are very protective of their standing and their mission and their prerogatives, who have powerful secretaries who often can be enlisted to support their resistance to change." So it's the DNI's job to break down the bureaucracy and change the culture of the individual members of the community. How does the DNI do that? Well, certainly not alone. McConnell says the White House has to assist because "only the White House is going to give direction to cabinet officers" - that is, those powerful secretaries.
Certainly the Bush administration and the leaders within the intelligence community say the proof that the community is more in harmony today is the fact there have been no attacks against the U.S. since 9/11. In this case, no news is good news - but then again, everyone knows al Qaeda is patient. More than eight and a half years passed between the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the one that ultimately brought the twin towers crashing to the earth.
As McConnell prepares to step aside for retired Admiral Dennis Blair, President Barack Obama's nominee for DNI, he touted the value of taking part in the President's Daily Briefing. It will be up to the new President to decide who he wants involved in his daily intelligence briefing, but DNI McConnell said his participation each morning with President Bush has made him more of a player. McConnell hears first hand what the President wants to know and how questions are being answered. "How do I guide or influence or direct a community in response to Presidential interest or tasking unless I'm there to take part in the discussion?" asked McConnell.
If McConnell were to leave Blair a note, he said it would suggest the new DNI needs to run the community with "persistence, priorities and determination." But McConnell, who was in charge for two years, sees no need for a note. They've been good friends since their Navy days and have talked often about the new job, which probably means Blair has a pretty good idea about the "dull stuff" he's about to take on.