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Dennis Blair erred -- but he had an impossible job

Adm. Dennis Blair was accident-prone, from his first days as director of national intelligence. But his real problem was that he occupied a job with a fuzzy mandate and powers that existed more on paper than in fact.

Blair announced his resignation today after a rocky 15-month tour in which he discovered the limits of his authority by repeatedly stubbing his toe. He was supposed to be a coordinator who would ease the turf wars that are endemic in the intelligence community. Instead, he picked a fight with CIA Director Leon Panetta, not a good idea in a town where Panetta has vastly more political clout than does Blair, his nominal boss.

Blair’s first political misstep was to select Chas Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council, a group of top analysts who are supposed to offer independent and iconoclastic judgments. Freeman, a brilliant former diplomat who speaks Chinese and Arabic, was a good choice for the job except for one thing -- his irreverent comments over the years had included some impolitic criticism of Israel. Critics also argued that he had been overly supportive of Saudi Arabia after serving as ambassador there in the early 1990s.

The Freeman nomination immediately became controversial. One former official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) called it a “profoundly disturbing appointment.” The White House was relieved when Freeman withdrew his name, angrily charging that he had been the victim of a smear campaign by the pro-Israel lobby.

The real problem for Blair was that he occupied a job whose powers were defined in law, but not in practice. The DNI post was created in 2004 as part of the reorganization of the intelligence community following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The idea was to create a CEO for the intelligence community -- someone who could “connect the dots” among the nation’s 16 different intelligence organizations.

Blair was the third person to hold the job, and he inherited the confusions and conflicts that had been part of its creation. Critics argued that the DNI operation just added more layering and bureaucracy to an intelligence community that already had too much of both. The DNI’s staff kept on expanding, and other agencies balked at what they saw as redundant functions.

Blair thought, reasonably enough, that his job was to run the intelligence community. But nearly all of the intelligence chiefs have other bosses. The FBI director reports to the attorney general. The heads of the surveillance agencies, the NSA and NRO, report to the Secretary of Defense. That left the CIA director as Blair’s only important direct underling, which led to the battle with Panetta.

The flashpoint was Blair’s demand last year that he be able to review the appointments of chiefs of station overseas and, where he thought appropriate, install his own representative as the top U.S. intelligence officer in a foreign country. Panetta went to the White House to protest what he saw as an attempt to gut the power of a politically weakened CIA. Blair, the retired four-star admiral, was enraged by what one of his aide’s described as Panetta’s “insubordination.”

The Obama White House didn’t need this intramural quarrel, and it was clear from the beginning that the elbows-out admiral was going to lose. Vice President Joe Biden was called in to adjudicate, and he basically sided with Panetta and the CIA. Blair was supposed to get on with the coordination mission.

The final accident that befell Blair was the Christmas Day bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. As the White House reconstructed the chain of missed signals and poorly coordinated intelligence, officials concluded that this was another failure to “connect the dots” -- a repetition of precisely the problems that the DNI operation was supposed to fix. The rumors started flying soon after that Blair would be out.

Changing the person who occupies the DNI position will reduce friction temporarily, but the real problem is the definition of the job. If the DNI is supposed to be the intelligence czar, then he can’t have such a high-profile political underling as the CIA director. A better idea, in my view, is for the DNI to be a low-visibility facilitator -- an intelligence community version of the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB has power, through its review of budgets and personnel, but it doesn’t pretend to have line operating authority. That’s the right model.

Blair was asked to do an impossible job. His successor should be given clearer direction about what this position is, and isn’t.

By David Ignatius  | May 20, 2010; 7:31 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Comments

Blair's error was being honest, speaking his mind and telling the truth about the Christmas bomber incident.

The current democratic party you better toe the line down to the last detail. Blair is just another victim under the bus for not falling in line.

Posted by: Cryos | May 20, 2010 8:24 PM | Report abuse

Remember: a hard target is not an easy target.

Posted by: flynnb | May 20, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

Blair's goose was cooked from day one, when he tried to appoint Chas Freeman on the National Intelligence council. Mr Freeman's fault lay in his candid statements about Isreal, which infuriated the American Zionists, and who did not like them. I firmly believe that this country is run by Isreali agents, who may be American in name but are only loyal to Isreal. Therefore, unless c orrective measures are not taken to counter the Isreali lobby, this country is doomed to failpolitically in the world arena.

Posted by: syedahaq2000 | May 20, 2010 9:19 PM | Report abuse

So he was set up to fail. What else is new? I certainly have seen this in the private sector as well - those undefined job duties. Or a big sounding job with a decent salary with almost nothing to govern over. Sad, really sad.

I suspect this will not be the last time we hear from Adm. Dennis Blair. I feel a book coming on.

Posted by: jkachmar | May 20, 2010 9:32 PM | Report abuse

Wait a minute! Wasn't Blair touted by Democrats during Obama's presidential campaign as proof of the fact that Obama was serious about intelligence? I quote from the Washington Post -

" Barack Obama's choice as director of national intelligence, is well known in Washington as an intellectual who values straightforwardness and has mastered the byzantine interagency process during his various government stints.

In choosing a man so steeped in Washington's ways, the Obama administration is signaling its intention to streamline the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is widely seen as too large, too cumbersome and still too disjointed, according to transition officials. "

What happened all of a sudden? The chosen man (as per WaPo's glowing profile) is all of a sudden a bumbling pariah? The powerful office is not meaningless by definition?

When journalists accuse politicians of flip-flopping, I wonder if they look bakc at their own words!

Posted by: metalmaniac | May 20, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

"Dennis Blair erred -- but he had an impossible job"

Very true.
Closed borders , guarded by the US military, for 3 years and passing "One Flag one Allegiance here" would make security an easier task.

Posted by: dottydo | May 21, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

Being honest and being a member of the Obama Administration simply do not mesh.

Posted by: mike85 | May 21, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

Great summary.

For military members, responsibility and authority are linked, and the mission comes first.

It's clear that Obama prefers the political animals like Panatta, who put the party first.

Posted by: Benson | May 21, 2010 3:51 AM | Report abuse

I think Ignatius is right that the problem is organizational and structural. Adding another czar to an already-fragmented bureaucratic structure, giving him responsibility without power--a sure recipe for failure. This kind of thing would have happened under a Republican president as easily as under Obama. Clearly we need better coordination, since the FBI and CIA don't seem to be able to share information effectively, but equally clearly the creation of this neither-here-nor-there job and organization has not been effective. An impossible job--exactly right.

Posted by: scientist1 | May 21, 2010 3:53 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Mr. Ignatius for an insightful article and for providing a recommendation for better operation of the intelligence director position. Your suggestion of an OMB model deserves to be analyzed -- without overanalyzing. Ultimately, we cannot "connect the dots" if we cannot see the dots. When the director's position was envisioned dots and realities were overlooked.

Posted by: fiveman3 | May 21, 2010 6:18 AM | Report abuse

Why "recommendation" appears twice in my comment when I only correctly entered the word once is an error on the part of the Washington Post's IT operation, not mine.

Posted by: fiveman3 | May 21, 2010 6:25 AM | Report abuse

The function of a good watch dog is to bark. You have to do the rest.

Perfection can be the enemy of the good.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 21, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Mullen must resign.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 21, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

Ignatius, WaPost: “The flashpoint was Blair’s demand last year that he be able to review the appointments of chiefs of station overseas and, where he thought appropriate, install his own representative as the top U.S. intelligence officer in a foreign country.”

Even for a military person used to choosing his commanders in a chain of command, a well-known necessity for successful combat, the selection of station personnel might be a stretch. A section chief might ‘report’ to the director of an Intel agency on an operational basis after being selected by that director as a normal process, but suppose there was a system in which station chiefs or equivalent field positions in other intel community structures were also eligible candidates for positions as officers of the NIC where the dots are normally connected after an Intel agency has sanitized the real-time information? The DNI has an effective career review authority that most intel people would take into account even when reporting to their own chain of command, especially if there is a system where officers of different agencies work on a security problem together. Temporary senior level crossovers between different agencies under DNI control wouldn’t hurt the overall security level at all. The objective would be to de-emphasize bureaucratic command chains that slow down perception of security problems by implementing DNI assigned project diversity. It isn’t ‘insubordination’ that is the problem; it’s lack of recognition of inter-department success by the NIC.

Posted by: arjay1 | May 21, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

The military-industrial complex, according to Eisenhower, was arrogating to itself the national definition of US strategic interest - lobbying to make it succeed!

Why in the world - after 9/11 - was DNI created? Is there a reasonable argument to augment 16 or more (national)intelligence institutions?

It's a recipie for turf warfare inside beltway bureaucracy.

Better consolidate the different agencies under a single statutory authority.

Posted by: hariknaidu | May 21, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Ignatius, seriously now, you don't really believe what you wrote here, now do you? Blair had an "impossible" no-win situation job? What are you, his apologist or something? I don't believe that-I know a lot about the NCTC-and it has had problems since it was first created, back in the 2002-03 timeframe-Blair was supposed to come along and fix those problems-he didn't.

The so-called "Underwear bomber," almost an exact model of Reid "the shoe bomber," and Reid's little known accomplice, Saajid Baadat, (the latter who backed out at the last minute)-ALMOST ACCOMPLISHED HIS DEADLY PURPOSE-WAY WAY AFTER ALL THE 9/11 FINDINGS AND LEGISLATION AND REORGS-AS IF NOTHING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAD CHANGED IN THE LAW ENFORCEMENT AND INTELL COMMUNITY.

I said, here on the Post blogs a day after the Underwear bomber's act was reported, that Blair and the NCTC should be held accountable, and that Blair's head should roll.

That has happened-and it is the right thing to happen-Blair IS accountable, along with the inexcusable failures of the CIA in this terrible intell. debacle. Blair's head has rolled-and some at the Agency's need to roll ALSO-PUBLICLY.

No excuses, Ignatius, really. Period, end of story.

Posted by: Spring_Rain | May 21, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, accused the administration of stifling Blair.

"It is unfortunate that the Obama administration did not allow him to do his job and tried to make him the scapegoat for the administration's intelligence failures. The problem was not with Dennis Blair, but with the White House itself, which, under John Brennan, attempts to control intelligence policy beyond the scope of congressional oversight while withholding necessary information from Congress," he said.

Posted by: micholina | May 21, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

The truth is that Blair was an obviously poor choice for the job from the beginning. As CINCPAC, he repeatedly got into hot water for the same sort of inability to keep his foot out of his mouth and to get along with his peers and superiors. All of the descriptions of him as "sharp-elbowed" and "blunt-spoken" are just a nicer way of saying this.

The DNI job requires a rare combination of a diplomat who knows when to pick a fight and when to go along to get along, a dynamic administrator who can run a distributed and complex enterprise and (by the way) an intelligence expert who can keep the President informed each day. It's certainly not easy to find someone who has all of these qualifications, but Dennis Blair doesn't have any of them.

Hopefully Clapper will be a better fit.

Posted by: Burgundy | May 21, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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