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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 04/ 6/2010

Donovan McNabb for intelligence chief?

By Jeff Stein

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair briefly hushed an audience of intelligence professionals and journalists Tuesday when he announced “some breaking news: There is going to be a new DNI very soon.”

Dead silence.

Then came the punch line: “Donovan McNabb."

Chuckles. Washington has been reveling in the news that the Redskins have acquired Philadelphia Eagles quarterback McNabb, who has a box full of championship rings.

It's not surprising that the crack by Blair, the third chief of the troubled Office of the Director of National Intelligence in just five years, produced more brittle titters than guffaws.

“It was simply a joke,” one of Blair’s spokesmen protested later, “an icebreaker. You shouldn’t read more into it.”

Maybe. But the ODNI "is still a work in progress," as Blair conceded. He lost a bruising battle with CIA chief Leon Panetta over who gets to designate the chief intelligence officer at U.S. missions abroad; has asserted only tentative leadership over 17 entities in the government that gather intelligence; and had to endure the aftermath of the Christmas Day attempt to bomb an American airliner, which President Obama said occurred because a "mix of human and systemic failures" had allowed the bomber to board the plane.

Maybe it does need a superstar.

Blair was addressing a packed Willard Hotel ballroom at a conference on intelligence reform sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center, founded by former senators Howard Baker (R-Tenn.), Bob Dole (R-Kansas), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and George Mitchell (D-Maine).

But Blair wasn’t the only official to suggest that the ODNI needs to be supercharged to fulfill the mission Congress gave it in 2004.

“It’s not an issue of more authority but more support,” he said, while heaping praise on Obama’s close attention to intelligence issues. He called the current time “the golden age of intelligence, because the White House is so involved.”

“This administration really wants to know how things are working out,” he said, adding, “It’s a great time to be the president’s chief intelligence officer.”

“The vision” of the ODNI’s creators was “right,” Blair said. But it will take perhaps a generation before the various intelligence agencies learn that working together is better than bowling alone. As a Navy officer decades ago, he recalled, he opposed legislation to force rival military services to integrate operations.

“I was wrong,” he said.

One of his predecessors as DNI, Michael McConnell, also a retired Navy admiral, argued in the morning for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Intelligence.

“We need a tenured DNI and a Department of Intelligence," he said, adding that he had been "thinking about it long and hard" and, it was literally "during the drive here today that I decided where I came down."

"If we don't do it this way we're going to continue to fight about these issues," he said.

Currently, the quality of the relationship between ODNI and CIA is too personality-dependent, McConnell said. He noted that he and former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had occasional rough patches, but "we were able to work it out because we wanted to work it out. It becomes very dysfunctional if those personalities don't mesh."

But retired Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, the former Vice-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said the most important issue for the DNI, whatever his cabinet status, is budgetary control over the entire U.S. intelligence community.

“That’s the key to the authority of the DNI,” he said in answer to a reporter's question after Blair's lunchtime speech.

By Jeff Stein  | April 6, 2010; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  
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