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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.

By E.J. Dionne  | May 21, 2010; 6:17 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Pre-9/11 we had a was called the Director of Central Intelligence. This irrelevant bureaucratic layer, however, was demanded by the 9/11 commission. It was bound to fail; a position with no troops, no analysis, and only the supposed power of the budget. The Israelis warned us about this bureaucratization..they tried failed. Now we've tried failed miserably.

Blair also undersood it...he tried to have the entire Directorate of Intelligence, the analyst arm of the CIA, moved to DNI control and he tried to take over appointments of CIA station chiefs abroad. He lost.

It is time to go back to the National Security Act of 1947, eliminate the DNI and the hundreds of aparatchiks they've redundantly created...and return authority over the intelligence community back to where it belongs, the Director of Central Intelligence.

Posted by: wjc1va | May 22, 2010 1:03 AM | Report abuse

Considering this administration's insistence that terrorism is a criminal, rather than a war activity, I don't see how a DNI can do anything. Criminals aren't normally prevented from doing harm, they are normally caught after or during the crime. These failed bombings seem to conform with that philosophy.

Posted by: termiteavenger | May 22, 2010 1:20 AM | Report abuse

The “real problem was that he occupied a job with a fuzzy mandate and powers that existed more on paper than in fact.”

Well, that sort of encapsulates the federal government's approach to every problem. Take responsibility for everything in American life -- education, health, welfare, etc. -- impose mandates on everyone, tax the bejeesus out of us all, and then pretend that its paper powers do us good.

Posted by: spamagnet987 | May 23, 2010 7:47 AM | Report abuse

The real problem is that the National Security Act of 1947 was never modified so that the DCI would have actual power over the military and non-CIA intel agencies; State and DoD have run rampant over the intent of the act in order to protect their "turf."

Posted by: thatviennaguy | May 25, 2010 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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