On Monday evening, Steve McDaniel shared a fascinating new document in the ever-evolving policy landscape surrounding unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP). The document is a committee report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. If passed, it would order the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to prepare an unclassified report about “unidentified aerial phenomena,” also sometimes known as ‘‘anomalous aerial vehicles.”
The portion of the document that is relevant to UAP is brief; less than two pages. However brief, the language is striking. Briefly, it says:
- There is an ongoing Office of Naval Intelligence investigation into UAP, which they refer to as a “task force.”
- The committee finds that there is “no unified, comprehensive process within the Federal Government for collecting and analyzing intelligence on unidentified aerial phenomena, despite the potential threat.”
- The problem has been neglected by senior leadership, and now needs to be addressed.
- The DNI, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense and any others deemed relevant, is directed to compile an unclassified report within 6 months. The report is to be delivered to the intelligence and armed services committees. Importantly, the language calls for identifying a specific official to be responsible.
- The report requires a comprehensive assessment of the available data, and is designed to assess the possibility of strategic surprise from a competitor and national security threats broadly.
- The report should address the interagency process of information sharing and make recommendations for further resources, etc.
If implemented as written, this would be a sea change in UAP policy. The impetus behind this development is almost certainly Tom DeLonge’s TTSA, specifically the advocacy efforts of Christopher Mellon. In May of last year, Mellon published similar draft language through TTSA, and penned a piece for The Hill arguing for such a report. Christopher Mellon is well-situated for such advocacy, given that he is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and was at one time the staff director for the SSCI — the committee which released this report. It appears that the language in the SSCI report is precisely in line with Mellon’s recommendations. Much reporting work needs to be done on the circumstances surrounding these developments, particularly Mellon’s likely contributions.
There is already considerable buzz and excitement about this report. However, the reality of national defense matters is that they can be extraordinarily complex and subject to intense bureaucratic pressures. Expectations should be tempered, and the process of more serious analysis should begin as soon as possible.
To start, it is important to understand that this is pending legislation; it has not been passed by either the Senate or the House. There is nothing legally binding in the language as written, yet. It could still be significantly amended. Given that this bill is embedded in the authorization process for an important function of government, it is likely to continue apace but it is by no means settled law.
An important question is how the clear intent of the SSCI committee could potentially be thwarted. Here are at least five risky scenarios:
- The report language could be amended away or otherwise weakened in the legislative process.
- The report could contain an extremely brief unclassified summary, perhaps stating that there is no evidence of “strategic surprise” from competitors or other national defense threats. It could have a relatively long classified annex. Much would depend on the appetite of the relevant committees to push back.
- The DNI could petition in some way that the report is unduly burdensome, potentially resulting in some kind of a compromise that would either push the report back or perhaps modify its scope and classification status.
- The DNI could stumble in marshaling the diverse elements of the IC in time for the report, particularly given the bureaucratic sensitivities involved, leading to a poor quality product.
- Hopefully unlikely, but the DNI could slow-walk or use other extralegal means to delay or otherwise be non-responsive. It must be said we are living in an era of unusually low regard for legislative body requests; several are now the subject of Supreme Court decisions.
The greatest potential vulnerability in the SSCI language is the broadness of the report. In effect, the DNI is asked to offer a “best assessment” of the most sensitive and sophisticated capabilities of foreign adversaries in an unclassified setting within six months. This is undoubtedly a very difficult task, because it potentially requires an almost exhaustive analysis of any and all data on advanced programs. Very sensitive sources and methods would certainly be involved in such an assessment.
One potentially mitigating factor is the report language suggesting an ongoing effort by a “task force” within ONI. This would seem to hint that there is already some data analyzed and in place; the start of the “race” would not entirely begin at the passage of this bill. It remains to be seen how well positioned other agencies such as the FBI and NRO are to respond to this request.
It is also worthwhile to linger for a moment on the role of the DNI itself. Thomas Fingar describes the ODNI as a complex, sometimes fraught office in a chapter of The National Security Enterprise: Navigating the Labyrinth. Tellingly, the subtitle of that chapter reads: “From Pariah and Piñata to Managing Partner.” In the chapter, Fingar describes the role of the DNI as a force for interagency cooperation in the post-9/11 environment as leader of the vast American intelligence apparatus. It is important to understand that the DNI is a somewhat recently created office, situated above a large number of powerful and often competing institutions.
Prior to the Intelligence Reform Act, the director of the CIA had dual responsibility as director of central intelligence (DCI) and head of the CIA. However, this meant that the director was both managing an extremely complex agency and nominally leading a large number of often fractious and headstrong intelligence agencies. Because the director had direct control and power over the CIA but not other agencies, it tended to result in less emphasis on coordination.
The crux of the Intelligence Reform Act was to cleave the responsibility of coordinating the overall IC from the specific management of the CIA. In the new arrangement, the DNI would focus on the IC as a whole, and the CIA director would focus entirely on that agency. However, Rumsfeld and others lobbied to protect their institutional authorities. As a result, while the DNI has wide budgetary power, he or she cannot abrogate the power of heads of departments.
In Fingar’s analysis:
In part because of the way the legislation was written, but also because Washington is a political town, the ability of successive DNIs to lead and manage the IC has been determined more by the personality and skills of the incumbent and the incumbent’s relationship with the president than by statutory authorities.
Further, the DNI is potentially exposed to a great deal of political scrutiny. This too has its roots in the post 9/11 world where intelligence matters were particularly at issue in the decision to invade Iraq. Fingar describes the situation this way:
A perennial joke — and for many IC (intelligence community) professionals a deeply held conviction — is that in Washington, there are only two possibilities: policy success and intelligence failure.
Given that criticism of a lack of coordination is central to the SSCI’s report language, it would appear that the DNI will have to account for predecessors’ decisions not to inform oversight bodies. Though this may have come more from ignorance or neglect, the risk of the label of “intelligence failure” looms large over these matters.
Taken together, the DNI is in a potentially difficult position with respect to this report. If Fingar’s analysis is correct, the likelihood of success will somewhat depend on the skill of the officeholder. Given the controversy surrounding John Ratcliffe, it remains to be seen if future DNIs will be political figures, or people with deep professional background in the IC.
Will this or a future DNI have the skill and clout to navigate such a difficult challenge, potentially within six months of the adoption of the bill? How will they manage the political and institutional risk involved? How can the DNI be substantively responsive to the SSCI requirements without running afoul of security concerns?
A further complexity is that the SSCI calls for “Recommendations regarding increased collection of data, enhanced research and development, and additional funding and other resources.” The suggestion of “additional funding” is particularly complex for the DNI, as they manage competing budget priorities. On one hand, the incentive of receiving more funds may be powerful; on the other, competition for those funds could result in counter-productive interagency conflicts.
A wise DNI would likely find a way to use the prospect of additional funding to prompt the relevant agencies to provide their best data — a kind of competition to see who can emerge as the most relevant on this issue. It could just as easily become problematic if agencies instead turn to challenging each other’s work product to jockey for funds. Time will tell.
Many, many questions remain about this document. For example, what is the significance of the specific reference to the FBI? Perhaps most importantly: what official would be the logical choice to head this effort? Arguably someone from ONI would be too far down in the hierarchy given the call to cooperate with other agencies. It would seem to require someone who could leverage the interagency powers of the DNI organization — perhaps a Deputy or Assistant Deputy DNI. Will that person be sufficiently familiar and connected to the relevant agencies to effectively produce the report?
It will be a fascinating issue to track in the coming year, and journalists have a great deal of work to do on just these developments.
Open questions for journalist and analyst friends:
- What is the likely reception of the bill in the House?
- What is the significance of the FBI mention in the document?
- Who is likely to be tasked with responsibility for the report?
- How will the DNI change depending on the outcome of the election (in either direction)?
- What is the broader “tick tock” of Mellon and TTSA’s advocacy efforts behind this bill? Have they earned sole credit?
- How likely are the relevant committees to resist if they are either slow walked, or provided with an extremely brief report?