Blair's Exit Raises Questions About Intelligence Job

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, seen in February, offered his resignation Thursday. i i

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, seen here in February, offered his resignation Thursday. During the 16 months on the job, Blair struggled to establish his authority over the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, seen in February, offered his resignation Thursday.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, seen here in February, offered his resignation Thursday. During the 16 months on the job, Blair struggled to establish his authority over the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Even as it recruits a new director of national intelligence, the Obama administration knows it could be a hard sell.

"There is probably no harder job in Washington," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The current DNI, Adm. Dennis Blair, offered his resignation Thursday, in the aftermath of distracting turf battles over the allocation of intelligence responsibilities and repeated criticism of his performance as the nation's top intelligence official. But whether the next DNI will succeed, where Blair did not, is by no means clear given the challenges likely to face anyone who holds the position.

During the 16 months he served as DNI, Blair struggled to establish his authority over the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. He faced criticism over the failure of his analysts to identify the threat posed by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up a commercial U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. In the weeks following that incident, Blair found himself sidelined by the White House.

'Diplomatic Skill'

The broader question is why Blair had all these problems. Was he simply the wrong person for the job? Is the DNI position unworkable as designed? Or is there some other explanation? The next DNI will want answers to those questions.

With its 2004 mandate to establish a director of national intelligence, Congress foresaw an individual who could oversee the 16 agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence apparatus, ranging from the National Security Agency to the Marine Corps' intelligence department and the CIA.

"Whoever is DNI cannot go into that job as a charging bull," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "It takes a diplomatic skill. It takes a sensitivity as to how to move."

Perhaps Blair, who once commanded all U.S. military forces in the Pacific, was not enough of a diplomat — or politician — to succeed.

Andy Johnson, formerly the staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says Blair may not have been the "right fit" for the DNI position.

"You had an individual who, as highly capable and committed to the mission as he was, was unable to navigate the rocky shoals of the political powers within the [National Security Council] or the national security structure as a whole," said Johnson, currently the national security director for Third Way, a Washington think tank.

'Something Wrong With The Job'

But Blair is not the first DNI to leave after a relatively short time in that position. He was preceded by Ambassador John Negroponte and by another retired admiral, Mike McConnell.

"The job is not built for success," said Mark Lowenthal, who was staff director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

"You've had three high-powered, highly intelligent individuals in that job, and you've had three of them in five years, and now we're about to have a fourth one? That strongly suggests there's something wrong with that job," said Lowenthal, who also served as an assistant director of central intelligence and vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. "The DNI is given a great deal of responsibility and very little authority to make it happen."

Though the DNI, in theory, supervises all U.S. intelligence agencies, the position has little budgetary authority over those agencies. Blair and his predecessors as DNI were also unable to assert significant authority over the CIA, which handles most covert intelligence-gathering activities and employs most of the intelligence analysts. Blair lost a well-publicized turf battle with CIA Director Leon Panetta over who should have the authority to designate the top intelligence officer at each overseas U.S. government mission.

Lack Of Presidential Support

To Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, the explanation for the DNI's lack of authority rests with the White House.

"No president has been willing to make a tough stand and implement this position and break down the walls that need to get broken down in our intelligence community," Hoekstra said.

Hoekstra, who is critical of both President Obama and George W. Bush in this regard, says Blair and his predecessors could have been successful if their president had given them full backing.

"A president can set a tone for making sure that the DNI has the authority to be successful and get the job done," Hoekstra said.

Given all these considerations, whoever replaces Blair as DNI will have to be someone able to work within the confines of the law, with sharp enough elbows to hold his own in turf battles, and be successful in demanding White House backing while still being a diplomat.

That is not the description of an easy job.

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