The job failed more than DNI Blair did
There will be many postmortems as to why Dennis Blair had to resign as director of national intelligence. Many will point to this or that failure on Blair’s part. But the truth is: The job he held turns out to be a bad idea. David Ignatius had it right yesterday when he wrote that Blair’s “real problem was that he occupied a job with a fuzzy mandate and powers that existed more on paper than in fact.” I can’t imagine a worse combination than a position that involves a lot of responsibility – for dealing with some of the most dangerous problems the country faces – and very little real power. God help the next person who gets it.
It’s no wonder that Leon Panetta, the CIA director, won his battles with Blair. (Panetta is also an excellent politician.) Like Panetta, John Brennan, the head of the White House counter-terrorism office, also had a secure power base, and also apparently prevailed over Blair. The DNI seems more a kibitzer or a loose coordinator than a director. Yes, President Obama could have made clear that Blair was the unchallenged authority on intelligence. Maybe such a presidential commitment could make the job work. But Obama chose not to do that, and the truth is that the CIA will always wield enormous power in this sphere. I think the DNI has a hopeless task.
What is to be done? In the short run, I agree with David that the DNI should be “a low-visibility facilitator -- an intelligence community version of the director of the Office of Management and Budget.” But in the long run, Congress and the White House should revisit the reform of the intelligence agencies -- and reform the reform. If we want a DNI to ride herd over all the intelligence agencies, the job should get real power. If that’s not possible (and I don’t think it is), then we should re-conceive the position and its function. The point of all this was always about “connecting the dots” and making sure that intelligence was shared. Maybe there are better ways of getting those dots connected.
There is said to be an enormous longing out there for bipartisanship. Surely this is an issue that does not break down as left-right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican. Let’s have a bipartisan review, in full cooperation with the White House, and get the lines of authority straight. That would be better than turfing out one intelligence director after another because the job itself is impossible. It would also be better than leaving things as they are until there is a real cost for a serious intelligence failure.
| May 21, 2010; 6:17 PM ET
Categories: Dionne | Tags: E.J. Dionne
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