Make America Boring Again
Fun fact: Journalists call this little subheading a "dek" and I don't know what else to put here right now.
So, Donald Trump went back to the Shadow and President Biden is just hanging out, signing executive orders. What the heck are we supposed to write about? There was a good tweet that I saw (don’t remember where, but I know I didn’t come up with this myself) that was kind of mean, but also smart: It basically said that lots of people in media have made a living off of Donald Trump - either pro or con - and were really not great at writing anything else. Trump himself is pretty interesting, so it doesn’t require all that much work or creativity to write him that way. It’s harder to write about the boring things and make them fun to read.
There are some highly technical stories that are important for the public to know about, but media organizations often avoid them. They instead leave it to specialized sources that write about heady topics relevant only to people already in the industry. What that means is you get write-ups about complex issues that are filled with language that the general public doesn’t understand. Every now and then you’ll see these stories buried at D3 in the legacy newspapers, but other times they’re left out altogether. The primary reason? People don’t read them. They are difficult to understand, harder to explain, and if that isn’t enough, how do you convince the average person that it should matter to them?
For example, it is really hard to break down why there is a battle between the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the CIA, but I personally think that you shouldn’t have to subscribe to National Affairs or Foreign Policy Magazine in order to understand it.
So, let’s give it a shot. I promise you, we will be able to get through this. And I can do that for two reasons:
You are smart.
Your brain is a muscle. In the same way that your first Peloton ride (yes, I’m sponsored) or workout can really knock the wind out of you, it can seem daunting to start reading long PDFs about United States foreign policy in Syria. But in the same way that every workout gets easier the more you exercise, your brain will adapt to the material you read.
So, let’s talk about the long-standing battle between the CIA and the DNI. Quick background: President Biden chose William Burns as the director of the CIA, and he chose Avril Haines as his DNI. Why are they going to fight?
Think of it like this: The CIA is like Apollo Creed. They are the reigning champs of the Intelligence Community (IC) and have been around forever. Since their inception, most American intelligence has flowed in and out of the CIA. But the problem is that much like Apollo Creed, they became overconfident over time. Or, maybe it was just too much work to be a spy agency and manage all the intelligence in American government; that’s a lot of balls to juggle. Either way, the CIA was an extremely talented, but maybe slightly arrogant Apollo Creed.
In about 2005, the CIA got a Rocky Balboa-like punch: The DNI was formed following a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission to reorganize all of the IC under one leader, given the major intelligence failures that occurred in Iraq. The DNI became the head of the other 17 intelligence agencies and took over the CIA’s previous duties to corral and shepherd all of the intelligence in the federal government.
What has followed since then has been a prolonged fight between the power of the DNI and how much that encroaches on the historical duty of the CIA. Since 2005, it has been mostly a Rocky I sort of story, where both sides have fought to a draw (is this what happened? I’ve never actually seen the movie). That was true in the Obama Administration, when you had a face-off between Leon Pannetta (CIA) and Dennis Blair (DNI) that literally ended with them both signing a document that made them kiss and make up.
In those days, Pannetta and Blair were arguing about which agency got to select intelligence representatives in certain countries, and when the DNI got to sit in on discussions about covert operations. (Is this thrilling yet?) What you could say is that DNI has sort of emerged as the Rocky Balboa of Rocky II, where they finally have a name for themselves and are now fully accepted as a cabinet-level position. But the movie isn’t really over yet.
What makes returning to this battle so interesting is this: William Burns is a really well-known and respected diplomat who has served in government for decades. He is more than likely going to have a traditional view of the CIA’s responsibilities that could conflict with the new, stronger role given to the DNI (President George W. Bush signed an executive order in 2008 to strengthen the DNI’s role and Obama did the same during his Administration). Couple that with the fact that Haines has never held a senior, front-facing position in government (she has been a deputy director in various roles) and it will surely make things interesting.
Given that 2005 was only 16 years ago, it’s a relationship that still hasn’t fully worked itself out. In general, most people in IC are probably happy about the shift towards the DNI, and people are also generally happy with Haines as the DNI pick; she is considered extremely well-qualified, even if she has been criticized by investigators in Congress who took a hard look at the CIA’s torture program. But under the Biden Administration, both roles will be cabinet-level positions, meaning that they are going to be sitting in on the same meetings and they will have to settle what turf belongs to whom. And it will also require President Biden to be clear about how he views the responsibilities of each role.
It is one of the long, boring battles that journalists will have to write about now that a “normal” President is back in charge. We sort of had a pause on Rocky vs. Creed during the Trump Administration because he couldn’t get through intelligence briefings unless they had pictures in them. But making the boring interesting is a good problem to have.
I really liked this piece by Jonathan Chait, where he rounds up all the local GOP responses to January 6th. Long story short, they are doubling down on flirting with sedition.
I am a proud YIMBY, and this is a fantastic piece on the topic by economist Noah Smith.
Tim Naftali, an actual historian, agrees with me that Trump is the worst President of all time.
Rostam - who used to play with Vampire Weekend - took Amanda Gorman’s (my computer really wants her last name to be Goodman) poem from the Inauguration and put it to music. Unbelievably good.
Have a great week my beautiful babies.