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