The Senate is considering the nomination of James Clapper to be the next Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Many wonder why he wants the job--he currently runs intelligence for the Department of Defense, in the past ran a major intelligence agency, and the job of DNI has too little power (as former DNI John Negroponte acknowledged yesterday). Add to this the fact that the President's adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security, John Brennan, is said to be the "real" DNI, the one who has the power--in the form of the confidence of the president--in intelligence circles. This makes sense, as the key job of the National Security Council is to coordinate the actions of the many foreign policy and intelligence agencies, making sure that they are not working at cross purposes and are implementing the President's agenda.
Why not, then, somehow merge the roles of DNI with the authority current held by someone like Brennan? Why not appoint to the DNI job someone close to the president, perhaps with a senior joint appointment to the National Security Council? This would give the DNI the legislative and, more important, the political power to do real things.
One reason for keeping the DNI at arms length from the White House is to maintain a form of plausible deniability. Generating intelligence that allows the authorities to prevent terrorist attacks is really, really hard. There are always going to be intelligence failures. Even if there were an obvious fix for the problems of the intelligence community, such as failing to share information, intelligence agencies will never to able to stop all attacks. To paraphrase Stanley Baldwin, some (terrorist) bombers will always get through.
Having an DNI as a cabinet-level agency outside of the White House allows the political leadership to distance itself from these inevitable failures. The White House can make sure that any blame falls mostly on the intelligence community and especially on the DNI.
From the perspective of the DNI, then, it might make sense to conceptualize the office as about "management" rather than "leadership". If it sticks to (boring but important) budgeting, technology, and training issues, the DNI is less in the loop for intelligence failures. The decision of early DNI's to build a largish analytical shop, to take responsibility for briefing political leaders on intelligence, and to try to assume some operational authority (for example, over the National Counterterrorism Center and the appointment of intelligence liaisons to foreign intelligence services) involve the DNI pretty directly in these failures. Focusing on management instead might provide some insulation from pressures to fire the DNI for the next intelligence failure. It might also do some good in reforming the intelligence community. Politically, though, it does not serve the interests of an (ambitious) ODNI or the White House.