In Blame Game, Blair Drew The Short Straw

A congressional committee this week echoed the White House's own findings that the intelligence community failed to connect the dots in a way that could have prevented Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a plane on Christmas Day 2009. Both the facts and the politics meant someone had to go, and this week it was National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair.

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President Obama asked his director of national intelligence for his resignation this week. Dennis Blair took the fall after a scathing report from the Senate Intelligence Committee about lapses that allowed a would-be bomber to board a jet bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. Mr. Blair's departure is not likely to end the ongoing political squabble over how the U.S. can best fight terrorism.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Dennis Blair's departure marks a big shakeup in President Obama's national security team. The White House has not yet named a replacement, but no matter who takes the job, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the new director will face the same challenge Blair did, trying to coordinate the efforts of more than a dozen competing spy agencies without clear lines of authority.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): My guess is there is probably no harder job in Washington, besides being president, than being director of national intelligence. The president simply believed that it was time to transition to a different director of national intelligence. We'll have an announcement on a permanent replacement soon.

HORSLEY: Blair got the ax on Thursday, two days after the Senate Intelligence Committee unveiled its report on the intelligence breakdowns that allowed a young Nigerian man to board a Detroit-bound airliner carrying explosives. The failed Christmas Day bombing is one of several close calls that have put the administration on the defensive.

Blair oversaw the intelligence clearinghouse that's supposed to connect the dots and prevent that kind of attack.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who heads the intelligence committee, says she doesn't think Blair deserved to lose his job over a single incident, but she points to problems he had with others in the intelligence community.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): It's pretty common knowledge that there was a certain rockiness to the road with Admiral Blair and that this had been under contemplation for some time.

HORSLEY: Feinstein blames the law that created the director's position in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The idea was to set up a one-stop shop for intelligence analysis, but the position's authority was left vague. And Feinstein says unless the director is very diplomatic, turf battles with the CIA and the Pentagon are almost guaranteed.

Sen. FEINSTEIN: They know how to play the power game. And so if you come in with sharp elbows giving large direction and moving quickly, they're going to fight back and generally they're going to win the fight.

HORSLEY: Blair did tangle at times with CIA Director Leon Panetta, but some Republicans insist Blair is not the problem.

Senator KIT BOND (Republican, Missouri): The term scapegoat comes to mind.

HORSLEY: Missouri Senator Kit Bond, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, directs his criticism not at Blair but Attorney General Eric Holder. Republicans have long complained that Holder and the administration generally approach terror suspects as a law enforcement problem, rather than enemies in a time of war.

Sen. BOND: Under this administration they treat all these people as common ordinary U.S. criminals and they give them the Miranda warning, so to tell them they don't have to talk. Prosecution is not the first goal. The first goal is to get as much information as you can, because the more information we can get from the ones who are unsuccessful - the incompetent dumb ones - the more likely we are to stop the next wave coming in.

HORSLEY: Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and now serves on the president's intelligence advisory board, suggests a new law might help to bridge this divide if it allowed intelligence agencies to more thoroughly question terror suspects without jeopardizing future criminal prosecution.

Hamilton also says the president will have to decide whether he wants his next intelligence director to be an outspoken leader or a behind-the-scenes facilitator. The new person will be the fourth to hold the job in just five years.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Former 9/11 Commission Co-Chair): It's no accident that you've had very good people appointed to the job but none of them keeps the job very long.

HORSLEY: Hamilton adds each time there's an intelligence breakdown, the government should try to learn from it with a minimum of political finger pointing.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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