The resignation of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Dennis Blair, is a symptom of a more serious problem within the Obama administration than the failures of the DNI. It’s a problem that won’t disappear with Blair’s departure. Fixing it requires more than appointing the right replacement. It requires a hard look at the DNI position itself and how President Obama and his White House oversee it.
It was about time that someone took the rap for the intelligence community’s failure to prevent two botched terrorist attacks that could have killed hundreds of Americans and one successful attack that killed 13. Not everyone, however, agrees it should have been Blair. But failures call for accountability. Blair, by virtue of his position, bears much of the responsibility.
Earlier in the week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report which determined that the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which Blair oversaw, should have connected the dots and prevented the Christmas Day attack. This begs the question, why didn’t it also detect Faisal Shahzad‘s multiple trips to Pakistan on his U.S. passport where he received bomb-making training in North Waziristan?
And although principal responsibility for failure to prevent Major Nidal Hasan‘s shooting spree at Ft. Hood Texas lies with the U.S. Army, the intelligence community failed to make more out of Hasan’s connections with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.
There was more to Blair’s resignation, however, than intelligence failures. There were turf battles with CIA director Leon Panetta—inherent in the vagaries of the 2004 law that created the DNI. Blair’s Bush-administration predecessor, Mike McConnell, had similar struggles.
In late 2008, McConnell issued a directive making CIA officials at overseas posts directly responsible to him. After Blair became the DNI, he told the community that he, not Panetta, would select the CIA station chiefs, possibly from agencies other than the CIA. Panetta told the CIA to ignore Blair, who also wanted a bigger role over control of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan.
According to AP’s Kimberly Dozier “The White House did nothing to back Blair over Panetta, which sent a message to the rest of the intelligence community that Blair could be ignored, according to one senior congressional staffer. Worse, the skirmish ended up costing Blair the support of Brennan, who resented being forced to mediate, according to another staffer familiar with the issue.”
Then there were Blair’s statements that displeased and embarrassed the President and his top advisors. Blair was the first Obama administration official to describe the Ft. Hood shootings as “an act of homegrown extremism.” The administration had gone out if its way to avoid that designation.
In January, testifying before the Senate homeland security committee, Blair admitted he had not been consulted about the Justice Department’s decision to read Umar Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights. He also revealed that the High-value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), announced on August 24, 2009, still wasn’t operational and wouldn’t be for several more months.
Before Congress and on other occasions Blair decried the extent to which all this had become politicized. He was pointing a finger at the White House as much as its critics.
Clearly, the White House wasn’t happy with Blair’s performance; his early departure was inevitable and increasingly anticipated. Nevertheless, neither the President nor Congress should allow this to obscure fundamental problems inherent in the DNI position or how it’s overseen.
How much direct control the DNI should have over the CIA and the fifteen other intelligence agencies in the intelligence community is a problem that will persist under the next DNI unless the President, and Congress if necessary, clarify it. Allowing the intelligence community to hash this out among themselves hasn’t worked.
Whatever levels of control the President gives the DNI, he has to allow him to do his job without micro management from the White House. If the president doesn’t want a decisive, take-charge personality as the DNI, he shouldn’t appoint a retired admiral or general to the position. If he appoints a take-charge individual, then the President must give him the authority to take charge, and the intelligence community has to understand that the DNI has the full confidence and support of the president.
Finally, it’s not an unfair criticism of President Obama to observe that his own lack of leadership experience has been part of the problem. If Blair wasn’t the right man for the job, it was President Obama who selected him. Having selected him, as soon as the President understood that he had a problem he should have personally given Blair clear direction, and there is little to suggest that he did.
Every new president makes some wrong personnel choices at the beginning of his administration. They soon recognize their mistakes and replace those individuals with people who do a better job. Where the security of the country from terrorist attacks is concerned, however, those mistakes can have grave consequences for the American people.
Fortunately for President Obama and America, the terrorists, with the exception of Hasan, have been less competent than the people responsible for exposing them. Whoever President Obama appoints to fill the DNI position, he must not only make the right choice, he must insure that individual has clear lines of authority and the latitude to do his job without political commissars looking over his shoulder.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.