21 May 2010

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair Forced Out

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National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair

Admiral (ret.) Dennis Blair’s resignation as Director of National Intelligence is apparently the result of his personal defeat in a series of turf wars within the administration over Intelligence issues.

The New York Times describes some of the conflicts.

The departure of Mr. Blair, a retired admiral, had been rumored for months, but was made official when President Obama called him Thursday and asked him to step down.

Mr. Blair’s relationship with the White House was rocky since the start of the Obama administration, and he fought a rear-guard action against efforts by the Central Intelligence Agency to cut down the size and power of the national intelligence director’s staff. He is the first high-ranking member of the Obama national security team to depart.

Mr. Blair’s departure could strengthen the hand of the C.I.A operatives, who have bristled at directives from Mr. Blair’s office. In recent months, Mr. Blair has been outspoken about reining in the C.I.A.’s covert activities, citing their propensity to backfire and tarnish America’s image.

The administration has largely embraced the C.I.A. operations, especially the agency’s campaign to kill militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas with drone aircraft. …

Officials said that Mr. Obama called Mr. Blair on Thursday to ask for his resignation, but that the two men had several discussions in person about the subject this week. Their relationship has been characterized as professional but not close, and some administration officials said Mr. Blair often felt cut out of discussions about important security matters.

Tensions among the White House, the intelligence director and Congressional oversight committees escalated after a young Nigerian man nearly detonated a bomb on a trans-Atlantic flight on Dec. 25. White House officials openly criticized Mr. Blair and his staff for a litany of missed signals that could have prevented the man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from boarding the plane.

They laid particular blame on the National Counterterrorism Center, one agency that Mr. Blair supervises. A report released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee was particularly critical of the NCTC’s failures to piece together the information that could have put Mr. Abdulmutallab on a “no-fly” list.

American officials said that Mr. Blair had also angered the White House in recent months by pushing for closer intelligence ties to France, an arrangement opposed by Mr. Obama.

Some intelligence experts and Republican lawmakers say they believe that the White House has tried to micromanage America’s spy agencies, and there was a particularly tense relationship between Mr. Blair and John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism director.

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Mark Hosenball, at Newsweek’s Intel blog, refers to “missteps” by Admiral Blair in the behind-the-scenes struggles over authority over US Intelligence.

While the timing of Blair’s departure seemed a bit abrupt, the notion that his position inside the administration was shaky has been common gossip in Washington intelligence and political circles for weeks if not months. Blair, who had a glittering career as a military leader, rising to become commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, gained a reputation as a not particularly adroit operator in the Machiavellian world of D.C. espionage politics. One of Blair’s earliest missteps was his attempt to appoint former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman as head of the National Intelligence Council, effectively the chief analyst of the entire U.S. intelligence community. The nomination was canceled after pro-Israel organizations questioned some of Freeman’s public statements.

Blair also lost battles, originally begun by his predecessors as intelligence czar, to win White House approval for the intelligence czar’s office to have the power to name its own supreme U.S. intelligence representative in countries abroad, and to give the intelligence czar’s office a place in the chain of command for “covert operations” proposed and carried out by the CIA. CIA chief Leon Panetta fought hard and successfully to preserve the CIA’s historical and exclusive prerogative to name U.S. intelligence station chiefs overseas. Panetta also succeeded in limiting the intelligence czar’s role in covert operations to an advisory one.

During the aftermath of the Christmas Day attempted underpants airplane bombing, Blair irritated White House officials with undoubtedly truthful, but politically awkward, statements to Congress about how U.S. agencies handled suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab after his arrest. Perhaps as a consequence, Blair’s public role in handling the aftermath of the more recent attempted car bombing of Times Square was reduced to the point of near invisibility.

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There are a lot of insiders talking about this one. ABC has even more details.

One official tells ABC News that President Obama sought Blair’s resignation earlier this week, but Blair pushed back, hoping to convince the president to change his mind.

That did not happen.

The official says that there were high-profile problems on Blair’s watch and those certainly didn’t help him, but the ultimate reason Blair is gone is because of the dissatisfaction President Obama and the National Security Staff had with Blair’s ability to share intelligence in a tight, coherent and timely way.

This was, the official said, the result of long pent-up dissatisfaction with Blair as the principal intelligence adviser to the president, responsible for briefing the president every day and briefing the National Security Staff. In short, officials didn’t think the briefings were relevant to what the president was focused on that day or time period. They weren’t crisp or well-presented.

At other times, Blair didn’t seem to take “no” for an answer, the official said. He was pushing an initiative dealing with intelligence and other countries, and he kept pushing it even after President Obama turned it down.

The news will not come as a surprise to those in the intelligence community. For months, Blair has turf battles while the White House made it clear that it had more confidence in others, such as counterterrorism and homeland security adviser John Brennan, taking the lead both publicly and privately.

Last November, the White House sided with CIA director Leon Panetta when Blair attempted, against Panetta’s wishes, to pick the chief U.S. intelligence officer in each country, a job that traditionally has gone to the CIA station chief.

At other points, Blair seemed simply out of the loop. In hearings looking into failed Christmas Day bomber Abdulmuttalab, Blair seemed unaware that the High-Value interrogation Group was not yet operational. He later walked back his statement.

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Judith Miller describes Blair’s problems as being related to his bring an outsider in the Obama Administration.

Congress loved him. A Rhodes Scholar brain with military bearing. A fitness fanatic, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair presented well on Capitol Hill. Peter King, the New York Republican who has fought so hard to toughen homeland defenses, praised Blair’s dedication to the job. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence committee, called him a “consumate public servant.”

But he was, as Peter King observed, the “odd man out,” or as another colleague called him, a good man in the wrong job. There were one too many turf fights. One too many bureaucratic battles lost for lack of White House support or just picked badly and lost.

John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, increasingly made intelligence policy from the White House. CIA Director Leon Panetta sliced him up again and again. Attorney General Eric Holder, close to Obama, muzzled him, too. Even DHS chief Janet Napolitano testified on issues that Blair would normally have weighed in on. He was, as King called him, “not an insider. Not one of them.

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Daniel Foster quotes ranking Republican member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence Pete Hoekstra (R- 2 MI) making the very same point Judith Miller did, with greater indignation.

Blair’s resignation is the result of the Obama administration’s rampant politicization of national security and outright disregard for congressional intelligence oversight. Blair’s resignation is disturbing and unfortunate. The concerns I have come from how the Obama administration conducts national security, not over the director of national intelligence, who they never allowed to do it.

“Congressional Republicans we will be watching closely who the president plans to name as a successor. Right now, the Obama administration’s national security apparatus is broken, dysfunctional and in disarray. Dennis Blair was the one person you could count on for rationality among Holder, Napolitano and Brennan—and he’s the one the president let go.”

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